Museum collections

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I spent last Thursday to Sunday in Killarney, Co. Kerry, at the annual conference of the Society for Folk Life Studies. Having just assumed that, in Ireland in September, it would probably be raining, I turned up with waterproof and boots, only to find the entire weekend was hot and sunny! The conference was held at the beautiful Lake Hotel in Killarney and Muckross House, a heritage site which includes a stately home, traditional farm and working craftspeople. (And two adorable Irish wolfhounds called Sadhbh and Saoirse – alas, too big for Ryanair hand-luggage).

The conference's beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse!

The conference’s beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse! (Images by the author)

The conference proper began on Friday morning with papers covering such topics as the impact of people on landscape, Kerry calendar customs and the 1930s Irish Schools’ Folklore Collection Scheme. I was also particularly interested to hear Brian Coakley and Deidre McCarthy’s paper The folklore and folklife of a section of the Kerry Way. Their project used mobile technology to make folklore/life content available to tourists walking the Kerry Way trail and I found it interesting to compare their experiences with MERL’s A Sense of Place project and our similar experiments with mapping and mobile technology.

Friday afternoon saw us on a tour of Muckross House and Traditional Farms. The farms contain a number of authentically re-created buildings such as a labourer’s cottage and a strong farmer’s house and barn, as well as traditionally grown crops and reared livestock. We saw a number of demonstrations including blacksmithing and straw-rope making, and were able to try soda bread made in the cottages with unpasteurised milk from the farms’ cows.

The after-dinner entertainment on Friday included a surprise performance from a local ‘Biddy Group’, a St. Brigid’s Day custom we had heard about from Patricia O’Hare in the morning session which involves local group rivalry, dressing up and disguise, music and dance, and the collection of funds from well-wishers (traditionally used for a feast but now more commonly collected for charity).

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a performance from a local Biddy Group.

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a local Biddy Group. (Images by the author)

Saturday morning’ papers informed us about the conservation of the Kerry bog pony, the archaeology of Irish bog butter and understanding nineteenth century Irish marriage traditions through art. Our afternoon excursion took us to Ross Castle, the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan on the shores of Lough Leane, as well as Aghadoe ecclesiastical remains, Ogham stones at Beaufort and the scenic Gap of Dunloe. In the evening we were treated to a wonderful dinner and night of Irish folk music, dance and storytelling in the strong farmer’s house at Muckross.

The weekend’s final papers covered the history of the creamery in rural Ireland, farming and the landscape and the traditional music of North Kerry. The conference was action-packed from start to end and by the end I felt ready for a holiday just to recover, but the varied papers, fascinating excursions, stimulating conversations and beautiful setting made the exhaustion well worth-it! Next year’s conference will be held at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and based on this year’s experience, I will definitely be attending.

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year - the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied!

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year – the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied! (Image by the author; BCLM photograph reproduced courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/424167)

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting stuck in to research for the Reading Engaged project. Along with others in the museum and archive team, I’ll be spending the rest of the year researching content that will hopefully be featured in the re-displayed museum galleries. I’ve made a start by really getting to grips with the yearly round of agricultural and rural processes, from ploughing to harvesting and everything in-between. I’ve been focussing on everything from the story of agricultural mechanisation to the politics of agricultural labourers’ unions to oral histories and personal stories.

Maths of ploughing!

A rather terrifying page I encountered whilst researching ploughing!

Two of the topics I’ve researched so far have particularly captured my imagination: hop picking and charcoal burning. I can’t wait to read more about hop picking and the stories of the huge variety of people who joined the migrant labour force in the hop gardens of Kent and other counties every year. There seem to be varying accounts of whether it actually made anybody any money and whether it was viewed as work or a holiday, but thousands of families kept going for generations regardless.

Hop pickers.

An archive image of hop pickers.

If I’m totally honest with myself, too, the main reason I was so keen to research charcoal burning was my memories of watching the charcoal burning scene in the 1974 film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons. I was somewhat disappointed to find no reference in my research to the practice of keeping an adder in a cigar box for good luck like Old Billy and Young Billy did! I think, though, that if I can be fascinated by charcoal burning because it featured in my favourite childhood book, it is because the story provides a familiar hook to what is essentially a process with very little connection to my life. For many of our visitors we hope be able to provide similar hooks, whether that’s the engaging personal story of a migrant hop-picker from London’s east end, a demonstration of how to use a particular hand tool, or a discussion of the links between farm mechanisation and wider world events.

We’ll continue to keep you updated throughout our research, particularly if we come across any particularly interesting objects or stories.

P.S. For others who haven’t grown out of loving Swallows & Amazons, here’s some fascinating posts on Sophie Neville’s blog about filming the charcoal burning scene (Sophie played Titty Walker in the 1974 film).

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Last week I attended the AGM and conference of the Rural Museums Network. The RMN, of which MERL is a member, is an organisation which exists to support and promote the work of museums with collections relating to the UK’s rural heritage. This year the two-day event was held in Worcestershire, the first day at S.E. Davis & Son Ltd in Redditch and the second day at Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove.

S.E. Davis is a family owned company which is thought to have the biggest private collection of historic agricultural and earth-moving machinery in the country. They hosted the first day of presentations, during which we heard talks on the debate about conservation versus operation of historic machinery, the work of heritage farming ‘Skills for the Future’ trainees in East Anglia, and the conservation of a windmill at Avoncroft Museum. It was fascinating to take a tour of the collection at S.E. Davis – I was stunned by the scale of it, and its significance both nationally and internationally. Just a few items that stand out in my memory are dredgers used on the Suez Canal, and a tractor used on HMS Arc Royal to push redundant jets into the sea. The collection must have required enormous inputs of time and money from the Davis family, with many of the vehicles and machines having been saved from scrap merchants at the last minute. It was interesting to discuss the different challenges facing museums and private collectors, and the potential of greater collaboration between the two.

S E Davis

One small part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

The conference dinner was held at a pub not far from S.E. Davis. I arrived, conventionally, by car, but some lucky attendees were delivered to the pub in a trailer pulled by one of the family’s working steam engines. They might have had all the fun, but some were looking a little splattered with oil and soot by the time they arrived!

Traction engine

A working historic vehicle being put to good use as pub transportation.

The next day was the AGM of the network and I was able to update the other network members about the redevelopment work going on at MERL. Several other member organisations are also undergoing redevelopment so it was interesting and useful to compare notes and hear about work going on in other parts of the sector. We also had the opportunity to look around the buildings at Avoncroft, in particular the windmill which we had heard about the previous day. I used to volunteer at Avoncroft when I was a high school student, so it was lovely to have the chance to see what had changed since my last visit.

Caterpillar

The Caterpillar ‘Molly May’, part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

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After working with Greta for two-and-a-half years, I suppose it was inevitable that some of her enthusiasm for baskets would rub off on me.  Spurred on by this and the success of last year’s introduction to blacksmithing day at Avoncroft Museum, I spent a very pleasant Saturday last month making my very first basket. I attended an ‘Introduction to Willow Weaving’ course run by Jon Ridgeon at Winterbourne House & Garden in Birmingham.

Basket-making

The all-important tea break, after completing the base of my basket.

Being somewhat familiar with basketry tools, terms and techniques from my involvement with the Stakeholders project, the craft felt oddly familiar for something that I had never attempted before. We made simple little round-based baskets with pretty arched handles. If I remember correctly, we used twining to make the circular base then added in the vertical stakes which would form the basis of the basket’s sides. The sides consisted of a combination of ‘french randing’ and a ‘three-rod wale’. Finally we finished the sides off with a rim and added a hazel handle. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of my complete basket to share with you but I promise that while identifiably having been made by a complete beginner, it wasn’t too terrible! It was a brilliant day, and it was really interesting to see how different all our baskets looked, given that we had followed the same instructions!

I’m hoping to go along to some more of Jon’s courses in the coming months and hopefully also have a go at some other crafts. I’m happy to take recommendations as to what to have a go at next – and if it’s a craft with relevant collections at MERL, all the better!

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Towards the end of last month I got to attend a training day run by Share Museums East called ‘The Wood from the Trees’. It was a day of training and advice about identifying and understanding different types of timber and their uses.

We started the day by going through some common terminology relating to wood, some of which I was familiar with and some of which was entirely new to me. I knew about softwood and hardwood, but not about the difference between sapwood and heartwood, and knew about knots and rings but not rays!

The next topic was the features and uses of eight common timber types: oak, ash, beech, sycamore, pine, mahogany, walnut and elm. Once we’d discussed their qualities and identifying features, we were given eight samples of wood to identify. My group got all eight right, but of course the task was made easier as we knew that they were each one of the specified eight that we had already talked about.

Wood identification samples

Wood samples and objects to practice our new-found identification skills on.

More difficult, but a more useful skill for someone working in a museum, was the next task. We were given a selection of wooden artefacts and asked to identify what they were made of.  My developing knowledge of baskets and basket-making gleaned from working with a basket enthusiast/obsessive helped me with the object in the photograph – a bicycle basket made of split oak by Owen Jones. The other objects we had to work with were much harder – objects are often polished and stained, making it harder to identify the wood by colour and texture.

The day was rounded off by a series of tasks designed to test how well we understood the different properties of types of wood. We imagined we were timber merchants offering advice to customers who wanted the right type of wood for a particular purpose. These skills should help me to make an educated guess at a wood I can’t directly identify, based on what the object was used for. My favourite fact from the day was that mahogany would actually be a brilliant wood for general-purpose outdoor functional uses. As a tropical hardwood it is very durable and good in wet conditions, but because it is so expensive you’d probably get some odd looks if you tried to make a farm gate out of it!

For anybody who’d like to find out more about wood identification, the course leader Robin Hill recommended the book ‘What Wood is that? The Manual of Wood Identification’ by Herbert L. Edlin.

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You might have heard recently that the Museum has been successful in a round one HLF application for a project called Our Country Lives.  Over the course of the year, we will be researching and planning for a major redisplay of the gallery, aiming to put stories about people and experiences of rural life at the centre of the new displays.

The 'tree' - the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The ‘tree’ – the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The main MERL blog has also changed to reflect the work of Our Country Lives, and you can follow updates on the progress of the project, as well as other features which will give you more of an insight into what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the Museum, Library and Archive.  There will be posts that show how other projects at MERL are feeding into the redevelopment work, including a recent post in the ‘Focus on Collections’ series about how the work of A Sense of Place might be contributing to the redisplay of the wagons.

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If you’ve seen any recent news updates from the Museum you might know that MERL was recently awarded funding from Arts Council England for a major project in collaboration with Reading Museum, called Reading Connections.

The project started in April, and we’ve got lots to tell you about the different things that are going to be happening.  There are a number of themes to the project, including world cultures, local collections, craft, and Reading in conflict.  This will include collections work and engagement, including events, exhibitions and online resources.  In particular there will be a series of events to commemorate the centenary of the start of WWI in 2014.  But I shan’t go any further here – to find out more, go along to the Reading Connections blog.  (There’s a separate blog for this new project to reflect that fact that it is a partnership with Reading Museum.)  If you’ve enjoyed following this blog (which will continue to run, don’t worry!), do take a look at Reading Connections, and see what’s happening!

Evacuees at Reading Station

Evacuees at Reading Station.

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I was reading the BBC News Magazine online this morning and came across this article about Google street-view, and how, in the author’s opinion, its immersive nature is changing the way we interact with places in a way that paper maps are not able to.  It’s an interesting article, and well worth a read, and I feel like I know what the author means.  Because I have a dislike of the unknown (and a tendency to over-plan), I sometimes use street-view to ‘practice’ an unfamiliar walking or driving route before I make the actual journey – bringing about a strange sensation of familiarity when visiting places that I have physically never been before.

Historypin Streetview

A photograph on the Bucklebury History Group Historypin channel, pinned to street-view.

Primarily though, the article made me think of the work we have been doing with Historypin as part of the A Sense of Place project, as it briefly mentions the fact that the galleries of some Museums are now available to tour on street-view, referring to the Google Maps Art ProjectHistorypin uses Google Maps as its mapping tool, and users can view some historic photographs pinned in street-view, seeing the old photograph overlaid onto the modern view of the same location.  In an earlier post we introduced the tours and collections feature on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group Historypin channels, and one of the nicest features of these is the potential to create a walking tour that a user can follow in street-view, viewing the overlaid historic photographs as they go.  I wonder how virtually interacting with places both now and in the past might add another level of complexity to the changing relationship with places that the author of the article claims the technology is fuelling.

 

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You may have noticed over the past couple of months that our blog posts and updates have slowed down as we approach the end of the Sense of Place project.  But don’t despair!  We’ve all enjoyed contributing to the blog so much that we’ve decided to keep it going, in its new role as a MERL Projects blog!

We hope that you’ve enjoyed following the progress of the Sense of Place project, and we’ve really valued the comments and feedback we’ve received so far.  We’ve still got quite a bit more to tell you about the final stages of the project, but we’ll also be telling you about other projects that are happening at MERL.  In the very near future, Greta will be writing a post to introduce the new project that we have both started working on, Countryside21.

So keep reading, and keep commenting!

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As you will have read from Greta’s post Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the past couple of weeks on our MERL Historypin channel.  A large number of the Collier photographs of Bucklebury have been re-pinned to more precise locations, and some of them are even pinned to street-view, where possible.  The next stage for us was to start to make proper use of some of the other features of Historypin, so Danielle and I spent an afternoon this week experimenting with ‘Tours’ and ‘Collections’.

Bucklebury ford

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury ford, recently re-pinned to street-view.

Tours and Collections are essentially features that enable users to group together and highlight particular sets of ‘pins’, according to whatever theme they choose.  The Collections feature is particularly suited to grouping pins by theme.  A Collection could be created to show a set of photographs taken by a particular photographer, or a set of similar objects.  The user can add some introductory text to explain the rationale of the collection and any other information they want to include.  The selected pins can then be viewed either in list-form or as a slideshow.

The ‘Tour’ feature initially appears to be similar, but its potential lies in the use of pins that are pinned to street-view.  Where relevant, the pins appear in the slideshow automatically in street-view, with a small map showing their location and a small space for extra text to its left.   If all the pins are on street-view, then, a tour can enable the user to virtually ‘walk’ down a street, fading pins in and out of view and following their progress on a map.

Describing the features doesn’t quite convey their potential to enhance a Historypin channel, so the best thing to do would be to take a look at some of the tours and collections Danielle and I created this week, on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group channels.  Simply go to the channels and select the ‘Collections’ or ‘Tours’ tabs.

MERL Channel collection

The ‘George Lailey, Bucklebury Craftsman’ collection, on the MERL Historypin channel.

The ‘History Walk around Bucklebury’ tour on the Bucklebury History Group channel is a particularly good example of what these features can do.  You’ll see that the tour includes photographs and objects pinned by MERL as well as those pinned by the History Group.  In this way, users are not confined to their own content, but can make use of any photographs and objects pinned on the website.

Bucklebury History Walk Tour

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury pinned to street-view, as seen in the ‘Bucklebury History Walk’ tour.

And there are a lot of pins to choose from.  According to the counter on the homepage, there are, to date, over 210,000 pins and comments on Historypin, and this can sometimes make the website (and individual channels) a victim of its own success.  The more that is pinned the better, but this makes it harder to sift through the content to find particular images.  If you look at the main list of pins on the MERL channel, for example, you will have to trawl through a lot of pages of object pins before you reach the Collier photo pins, which were added at an earlier date.  A major benefit of the tours and collections features is that they provide solutions to this problem.  They can highlight particular sub-sets of pins and make it much easier for their users to find what they might be looking for.  We think they also make the channel more interactive, informative and enjoyable to browse.

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