Massingham

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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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My colleague Alison Hilton (Marketing Officer) recently joined other museum professionals from around the UK at an event held in No. 11 Downing Street in celebration of the success of Museums at Night.

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer

Alison Hilton (Marketing Officer) at No 11. Downing Street, April 2012

This visit from a member of MERL staff to the heart of government brought to mind something that I read recently, which had been penned by the current incumbent of the property next door, No. 10. The Spring 2012 edition of the Countryside Alliance quarterly magazine features a guest article by Prime Minister David Cameron (2012_Spring_Cameron), in which he writes enthusiastically about modern country life and refers to his own personal experience of different places within rural Britain. Here the PM draws attention to his own rural roots. He was brought up less than 20 miles walk from MERL, in the small West Berkshire village of Peasemore. Somewhat coincidentally, Peasemore just happens to be the location of the pub that will host the winner of MERL’s current photographic competition. I would urge you to enter this soon as the deadline of 22nd April is almost upon us.

Whilst attempting to avoid the political rhetoric of the PM’s article, I was nevertheless struck by a couple of things. Firstly, his characterisation of rural Britain as ‘a real place of mud and muck, proper community ties and incredibly hard-working people trying to make a go of their lives.’ This seems to echo the notion that the countryside might harbour potential to offer a renewed sense of social cohesion, about which I have already posted some thoughts. The piece also appears – albeit probably unintentionally – to echo language that was popular in critiques once levelled at the nascent organics movement of the 1940s, namely that this was an ethereal and unrealistic world of ‘muck and magic’! Putting this to one side for a moment, let’s take a look at how the PM then picks up on nostalgic and romantic ideas of the countryside, attempting to contextualise these within the complex social and economic climate of the present:

‘I love the beauty and history of the British landscape but for me rural life is part of the present, with huge strengths and serious challenges too… it is my constituency of Witney in West Oxfordshire where we [David Cameron and his family] are really at home. It’s a stunning bit of Britain, on the edge of the Cotswolds, with a real rural economy and thriving market towns. You can never forget, as an MP for a seat like mine, that the countryside isn’t a vast museum [my emphasis]. It’s a buzzing 21st-century economy.’

I think that it was the last section that I found particularly problematic. There is a casualness to the popular conception of museums as warehouses of the past that has the effect of pigeonholing them and portraying them as storehouse for objects, technologies, or ideas that were once important but are now redundant, once active but now static. However, much like the PM’s take on the countryside of the 21st-century, I would argue that museums are undeniably buzzing. What is more, they are waking up to their wider socio-economic potential and becoming increasingly effective at measuring their own impact, understanding their value as dynamic sites of engagement, recognising their potential to become active agents of change, and highlighting their important role as interconnecting hubs and facilitators of social enterprise. We don’t even have to look outside the rural museums sector to find the pioneers and architects of this latter approach. The Museum of East Anglian Life and its Director Tony Butler sit at the forefront of the Happy Museum Project, which seeks to bolster the social and economic importance of such institutions within their local communities, and to draw strength and inspiration from the values of people living in these places. So, far from being backward-looking institutions, museums are actually operating very much at the vanguard of David Cameron’s Big Society.

In addition, I would argue that the countryside can operate simultaneously as the ‘buzzing’ economy of the PM’s portrayal and concomitantly the enormous museum that he is keen to declaim against. Farmers and other managers of the landscape (alongside the many diverse people who work or live within it) are not only contributing towards a host of vital modern industries but participating in a vast exercise in stewardship and custodianship. Whether we travel through the countryside, talk about it, or even directly participate in and contribute towards it’s construction and care, we are all able to enjoy the fruits of these collective curatorial labours. This links back to some of the ideas that I think lay behind the very establishment of MERL. I believe that the museum’s founding father, John Higgs, probably drew inspiration from ideas about rural community and localisation that were popular with certain thinkers of the interwar period. This included people like H. J. Massingham, whose artefactual collections Higgs secured for his fledgling museum, and which have recently been fully catalogued as part of the Sense of Place project.

This notion of the nation as a vast open air museum is not really very new. It has links to the national park movement of the 1930s and arguably has its most explicit roots in ethnographic projects that preceded these developments. Indeed, I paid passing reference to one such vision in a recent article about folklore and object-collecting during the late-19th century:

‘On the threshold of a new century, one major folklorist argued that the entirety of British folklore should be thought of in museological terms, with the nation itself the museum and all its vernacular content and attributes—living and obsolete, tangible and ethereal—a distributed but systematic collection. Here the discpline itself became a museum; an historical project in which “specimens” were to be “labelled, ticketed, and set forth for greater convenience”.’

This is far from a redundant notion. I suggest it has a valuable role to play in the present and that the idea of ‘place’ should come to form a central part of how we begin think along these lines. Rural museums should seek to foster the idea of the countryside as a ‘vast museum’, thereby highlighting and capitalising on their own potential to function as key players in the broadening of public understanding about this rich interconnecting web of places, people, and activity. They can become portals, springboards, and stepping stones by which contemporary audiences can enter and begin to understand and enjoy the rural places that make up the massive countrywide display and interactive of Britain. There is nothing shameful in seeing the countryside in these terms. Instead, much like Museums at Night, this is something we should look to celebrate and encourage.

Articles cited:

  • David Cameron, ‘Last Word: My Countryside’ in Countryside Alliance, Spring 2012, p.42
  • Oliver Douglas, ‘Folklore, Survivals, and the Neo-Archaic: the Materialist Character of Late Nineteenth-century Homeland Ethnography’ in Museums History Journal 4:2, July 2011, pp.223-244
  • Alfred Nutt, ‘Presidential Address. Britain and Folklore’ in Folklore 10:1, 1899, pp.71-86 [as quoted in my own article]

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Having reached the cataloguing milestone of finishing all 1300 or so records from 1951, I thought it would be good to share some of the things I’ve catalogued. 1951 contained several large collections of objects – the Lavinia Smith Collection, the H. J. Massingham Collection and the Shickle Collection of Friendly Society Poleheads – which definitely helped speed up the cataloguing.

Lavinia Smith was an American who lived with her sister, Frances, in the village of East Hendred in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire) until her death in 1944, aged 73. She gathered objects from friends and neighbours in the East Hendred area, and even found some at the village dump, and displayed them to visitors, especially children from local schools, at their house in the village, ‘Downside’. When Lavinia died, the collection was bequeathed to Berkshire Education Services, and later transferred to the Berkshire Archives at MERL.

A view of Downside, where Lavinia Smith lived.

The Lavinia Smith collection at MERL contains over 400objects – including agricultural implements, animal traps, animal bells and shepherds’ crooks, horseshoes and harnesses, woodworking and metal working tools, fireside and cooking equipment, and much much more! Try searching for ‘Lavinia Smith’ in our online catalogue. Further Lavinia Smith material is held at the East Hendred Museum and details can also be found here. Our records at MERL also contain a list of many of Lavinia Smith’s donors, along with their occupations, which provides interesting contextual evidence – and could be an interesting avenue for future research.

The East Hendred Museum, housed in Champs Chapel.

So, having spent the best part of a month cataloguing the Lavinia Smith Collection, I had a really strong urge to visit East Hendred (and take my photo next to the village sign – but my arms weren’t long enough to fit me and the sign in the same photo) and decided to head off one sunny Sunday and see what sort of a place it was. As it turns out, East Hendred is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve ever been to! Unfortunately the East Hendred Museum was closed on my visit, but I spent an hour or two walking around and enjoying the sunshine, and I can see why it would have appealed – it was very ‘English’ and very ‘Midsomer Murders’. However, there wasn’t much sign within the village of the agricultural way of life that Lavinia Smith’s collection documents. Until this project, I’d never heard of East Hendred, and so had no idea what it was like and had no context in which to catalogue the Collection – visiting it has made it a ‘real’ place far more than looking at it on a map did.

Incidentally, East Hendred is one of those difficult places we’ve encountered which has been affected by changing county borders – from Berkshire to Oxfordshire – and is brilliantly illustrated in this ‘Best Kept Village’ sign from the 1970s.

From Berkshire to Oxfordshire.

And on the way back into Reading, across the Berkshire Downs, it was pleasing to recognise lots of place names that I’d encountered in the cataloguing. I’m from Cambridge and don’t know this area at all, but I feel that I’m slowly starting to piece together a map in my mind of where places around here are. So my visit to East Hendred helped me improve my ‘sense of place’ in terms of the context in which Lavinia Smith was collecting and of my geographical knowledge of the Berkshire/Oxfordshire area.

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