QR codes

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Next week, the Sense of Place team will have another chance to tell people about the work we have been doing as part of the project.  We will be giving an informal lecture, ‘A Sense of Place: putting MERL’s objects on the map’, as part of the Museum’s popular Lunchtime Talk series.  We will give guests an introduction to the project, an update of our progress so far through interesting case studies, and a demonstration of some of the resources that we have created.

The talk will take place at the Museum on Wednesday 5th December, from 1-2pm.  It is an informal event, so do feel free to bring your lunch with you.  You can book in advance from the Museum website but don’t worry if you haven’t had chance to book – come along on the day anyway.

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One of the QR codes (bottom left) in position at MEAL, linking to a clip from ‘The Darling Buds of May’.

As Felicity is busy working on other things this week, I thought I would attempt to write a post about the use of QR codes at the I Spy the Countryside exhibition at the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket, which we visited last week. Being a bit of a technophobe, this post won’t dwell too much on the technical issues related to using QR codes.

The exhibition was installed in two rooms in the newly-opened Abbots Hall at MEAL. The frequent use of QR codes was one of the first things we noticed when looking around Abbots Hall, and there were also several in the exhibition. Having given quite a bit of thought to the use of QR codes over the past few months, we were interested to see how they were being used at MEAL.

So, what did the QR codes in I Spy the Countryside point to? Most of them pointed to videos relating to the objects they were positioned next to, such as the trailer for the film Withnail and I next to the film poster, and a clip from the first episode of The Darling Buds of May next to a blazer worn by David Jason as Pop Larkin in the TV series. What was perhaps most intriguing was the QR code next to the Introductory Panel linking to an I Spy the Countryside Spotify playlist. Unfortunately I didn’t have any 3G signal at MEAL so I took photos of all the QR codes, uploaded them to the computer and have been scanning the codes back in the office (where 3G/wireless signal is also pretty unreliable).

This was very different from the way we’ve tried to use QR codes at MERL, which link back to the online catalogue to provide more information about the objects displayed in a particular case in the gallery. Having not been able to access the content while at MEAL, I can’t really tell how the use of QR codes affected my experience of the exhibition, but it did make me think. Would watching videos/listening to music have enhanced my experience of the exhibition? How would it have affected my understanding of the objects on display? Would I have spent more time watching/listening to things rather than looking at the objects – and does that matter? Would I have enjoyed the videos/music more or less if I watched/listened to them while looking at the exhibition rather than at home? How were the QR codes intended to be used? Are people without smartphones/QR readers missing out? How was the content chosen for the QR codes, and who chose it? Are the QR codes checked regularly to ensure that the content hasn’t been removed from the internet (as videos are often take down due to copyright issues)? Does this technology enable new interactions between the museum and the visitor – e.g. could the playlist be changed each month in response to suggestions from visitors (visitors were able to make suggestions for contemporary collecting)? How many people have been using the QR codes and what has the response been?

There’s certainly a lot to think about when using QR codes in museums, and perhaps we should be experimenting with different types of content at MERL. If you’ve visited I Spy the Countryside, what did you think of the QR codes? Would you like to see them used at MERL and, if so, how?

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Welcome to the exhibition!

Last Friday we visited the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket for the opening of their new temporary exhibition, I Spy the Countryside. This is MEAL’s incarnation of a loan exhibition put together by MERL called Collecting 20th century rural cultures.

The introductory banner – one of six banners put together by MERL as part of the ‘Collecting 20th century rural cultures’ exhibition which are available for loan.

The Collecting 20th century rural cultures project at MERL, which ran from 2008, aimed to acquire objects which build a picture of the English countryside in the twentieth century. The project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures initiative. Over 400 objects were collected during the project – you can read about many of them on the project’s blog. Unlike previous collecting at MERL, which has focused largely on the story of rural technology and crafts, these objects have a more tangential connection to the countryside, exploring representations and perceptions about rural places and people.

One of the major outcomes of the project was a temporary exhibition which can be loaned to other museums and institutions. This exhibition, put together by the Sense of Place team, brings together the objects collected during the project into five themes – rural and urban interactions, the countryside as inspiration, representations of the countryside, modernisation, and conflict. These are not definitive, but are the result of our own interpretations of the material that was collected.

Both MEAL and MERL are rural museums, and share many of the same issues in contemporary collecting. Like Collecting 20th century rural cultures, I Spy the Countryside aims to get people talking about the future of collecting in rural museums. Roy Brigden, who initiated the project at MERL, opened the exhibition and in his opening speech made an excellent point about who determines what museums collect – the donors, as many museums acquire what they are offered, rather than actively seeking objects.

Ele and Izzy, Collections Management and Interpretation Interns at MEAL, who’ve spent the past few weeks working on the exhibition.

 

I Spy the Countryside was installed in two rooms in the newly-opened Abbots Hall at MEAL. It consisted of the six banners from MERL, alongside nearly sixty objects loaned from MERL and some of MEAL’s own collections. The cataloguing work we did in the summer played an important role in enabling MEAL to select the objects they wished to borrow, as all the information we have about the objects was available to view on our online catalogue (type “collecting 20th” into the search box).  I really liked the very colourful and ‘full’ feeling the exhibition had, with the walls crammed with paintings and posters, many of which we’d never seen actually seen (as we spend most of our time working from the files). There were several QR codes scattered throughout the exhibition (which Felicity will blog about shortly) and I think it was a good opportunity to learn how similar museums are making use of this technology.

Many of the objects acquired by MERL were 2D – we think they look great packed together like this.

The chair on display in the background was made by Edward Gardiner for the Cragg Sisters’ tearooms in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. MEAL was pleased to welcome a former owner of the tearooms to the exhibition opening, who offered more contextual information about the chair.

I Spy the Countryside is on display at MEAL until March 2013. Collecting 20th century rural cultures is available for loan to other institutions – if you’re interested in borrowing it or would like more information, please contact us. And if you get a chance to visit the exhibition at MEAL, please comment on the blog and give us your feedback – we’d love to hear your thoughts!

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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.

Saddlery Case

One of the displays in the Saddlery Case, one area of the gallery in which we will be trialling the use of QR codes.

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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.

Presentation slide - Sense of Place

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

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

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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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