Apologies for the Wizard of Oz reference in the title – I couldn’t help myself. To finish the week, I thought I’d post an update on what I have been working on over the past couple of weeks. We recently asked some of our MERL tour guides for feedback about what sort of objects visitors seem to be most interested in, with a particular interest in place. The answer that came back was “wagons and ploughs”. This didn’t really surprise me, as I remember on my own first visit to the museum I immediately wanted to find a wagon from Worcestershire, the county in which I grew up. As it turns out, we don’t actually have a wagon from Worcestershire, but we do have plenty from many other counties. I spent a few days enhancing the catalogue records for all the wagons in MERL’s collection, and after than moved on to the ploughs.
Cataloguing in this way does have certain advantages. Spending a number of days immersed in information about a particular type of object gives you a much better chance of getting to understand those objects, and what is most relevant and important to record about them. This is particularly useful when trying to tidy up the object name thesaurus for such objects. In contrast, if you only catalogue one wagon in every 300 records it is much harder to get an overall picture of wagons and their variations. Of course, it does help when you are interested in the objects you are spending up to week cataloguing exclusively. On the other hand, cataloguing chronologically gives a really good insight into the history of the collection and how it developed over time, as well as being a logical and consistent way to progress towards our goal of 10,000 records by the end of the year. It is interesting to consider how the order in which we catalogue objects might be influencing the way in which we are cataloguing them.
As well as the wagons and ploughs, I have also catalogued the objects in one particular gallery location: the saddlery case in the ‘Leather’ section of the Museum. This is part of a small part of the project I am working on, where we’re trying to think of ways of making the enhanced catalogue records more accessible to visitors who are actually standing in the Museum, looking at the objects. One of the ways we are thinking of doing this is using QR codes. This is one outcome of our work with iMuse (see Working with iMuse and Historypin), and we have been able to think a lot about the benefits and practicalities of using QR code technology in a museum context. Now that all of the objects in the saddlery case have been enhanced, we will be able to generate a QR code which, when scanned using a smartphone, will direct the visitor to the enhanced database entries for those objects. As a starting point, this should enable them to access far more information about the objects than would be possible with in-gallery text labels. Of course, QR codes aren’t perfect: not all of our visitors will have smartphones, for a start. As an initial idea to trial, though, we hope that it will give us some useful feedback with which to move forward.
One of the displays in the Saddlery Case, one area of the gallery in which we will be trialling the use of QR codes.
Although we are only part-way through, we have already begun to disseminate ideas generated through this project and activity that the team have undertaken to date. Last Thursday I spoke briefly about the Sense of Place project at the AGM of the Rural Museums Network (RMN), which was held at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.
Opening slide from Sense of Place presentation
This was an ideal opportunity to guage wider interest in the project and to get an idea of what other approaches were circulating with regards digital approaches to rural collections. I was asked about how successful our experiments with QR codes had been as, perhaps unsurprisingly, other institutions have also begun to dabble in using this technology. I’m afraid to say I didn’t yet have much to report but ‘watch this space’ as they say. As our partnership with iMuse moves forward and our own experiments with Qr codes and other forms of access kick into action, we’ll be able to offer more practical pointers and ideas.
In many respects this was the perfect forum in which to talk about the wider aims of the project and to raise the important question of how best to approach the mapping of rural material culture. Thankfully, nobody voiced concern with our basic approach and the consensus seemed to be that this was an interesting and useful departure for MERL, as well as something that the wider sector might buy-into in the future. The project will certainly have an airing at future RMN events but I was left with the feeling that perhaps this idea might well have legs beyond the lifetime of this project and that maybe our partnership with HistoryPin will generate a portal through which more members of this Subject Specialist Network wiull be able to promote and raise the profile of their own rich collections.
I was suprised how few members had heard of HistoryPin but perhaps this is not so surprising. The ‘street view’ driven aspects of the experience of this resource do arguably preference urban users and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it can be a little frustrating trying to ‘pin’ items to a rural spot. If anyone in the RMN who heard my presentation was left in the dark about what HistoryPin is and how it works, why not check out this nifty little explanatory video, or this talk by its founder and CEO, Nick Stanhope. The latter film actually reveals the inspiration behind the whole HistoryPin idea which, interestingly enough, actually pertains to a very rural narrative.
In a timely fashion, we actually have a meeting with Nick and his colleagues tomorrow to discuss the direction that we’d like to take our partnership with them in. So keep an eye out here for future developments on this front. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a nice photograph that I took at Acton Scott, and with a small note to myself that I must remember to ask Nick if he is in any way related to Lord Stanhope, inventor of an obscure photographic device known as a Stanhope Peep – I’ve been meaning to ask him this since I first heard his name mentioned. It would seem strangely appropriate if he were linked by more than name to this historical photographic device.
Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm
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.