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One word I’d never heard until I started working on the Countryside21 project is ‘aboutness’. It may sound a bit like it’s not really a word but it is actually a very useful concept. We’re using it to help us better keyword the photographs that will be made accessible on the new Digital Asset Management system. The idea is to make the photographic collections much more easily searchable to picture researchers, which means that we have to put a lot more thought into what sorts of terms people might use to search for images.

Boy feeding a lamb.

A photograph of a young boy feeding a lamb.

The essence of ‘aboutness’ is that there is often a difference between what a photograph is ‘of’ and what it is ‘about’. As an example, take this image. We can say that it is ‘of’ a young boy feeding a lamb under a blossoming tree, watched by an adult standing in the background. How many picture researchers will specifically look for an image of a child feeding a lamb? Perhaps a few. But there is more to the image. We might suggest that it is also ‘about’: nurturing, innocence, confidence, learning, supervision, safety and childhood. Tagging an image with keywords based on emotions and concepts as well as physical things will, we hope, widen up its potential appeal and vastly increase its searchability.

The main aim of this part of the project is to keyword three-thousand images from the collection (including a number of photographs of museum objects) with such ‘aboutness’ keywords. So far, we’ve run an initial focus group with volunteers to help us test the concept and work out how best to organise the process of ‘tagging’ each image with the appropriate keywords. Another focus group will be run in the next few weeks, after which we’ll be ready to get started with the main set of images. In the meantime, here’s a few of the selected images – do comment and let us know what you think they’re ‘about’!

dx289_0011a, dx289_0344 and dx289_0626

What are these images ‘about’?

 

 

 

 

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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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Today's teaching session in the MERL stores.

Today’s teaching session in the MERL stores.

We had a visit this morning, led by Prof. Martin Bell, from some Coastal and Maritime Archaeology students who had come to look at a selection of fishing-related objects. We got out a selection of basketwork eel traps of different shapes (63/171, 63/173, 63/606), some simple willow ties (63/75, 64/152), a selection of eel and fish spears of different designs (51/7, 51/1198, 53/258), a Welsh coracle with paddle and club (56/187/1, 56/187/2. 60/641), and a replica ard (a rudimentary plough) (63/610). The students also looked at some salmon traps (64/22, 64/23) in the gallery. You can find out more about these objects by searching the online catalogue.

It was really good to see MERL’s collections being used as a teaching resource – it would be great to have more of these visits! I hope everyone found it as interesting as I did – I really enjoyed listening and finding out about comparable objects found in the archaeological record. It’s visits like these which highlight the different ways which museum collections can be used, and which help us to understand and interpret our collections in new ways. And it makes for a good break from cataloguing!

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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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2012 is drawing to a close and so is the Sense of Place project, with just a few more weeks when we come back in 2013.

We’re frantically trying to reach 9000 records before the end of the year – we have about six hours of work left and 30 records to go. I think we can do it! As well has finishing all the cataloguing from the 1950s, we’ve now also finished cataloguing everything that’s been accessioned in the 2000s. So that just leaves 40 years’ worth of objects which need their records enhancing – unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of the project! But hopefully someone will get a chance to work on the catalogue once A Sense of Place finishes.

The new year will see us winding up A Sense of Place. We still have a little bit more cataloguing we’d like to do before we finish (I’d like to finish the British Council traditional craft collection) and then there’s all the other things to be done – user testing of the enhanced catalogue records, evaluation of the project, launching the Bucklebury App, updating the cataloguing manuals we put together at the start of the project, tidying up object names, going back to records we’ve only partially enhanced because of ‘issues’, and writing our final blog posts.

Until then, we wish everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year!

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The 1960s.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  The Chinese cultural revolution began.  The first series of Star Trek was aired.  MERL acquired object number 60/1/1-2, a pair of candle snuffers from Binfield.  I know this because we have just finished cataloguing every object accessioned to the Museum in the 1950s! 

Our first main motivational target (‘leave the 1950s’) has therefore been reached!  This leaves us with our main personal target remaining: finish 10,000 records by the end of the project.  We’re currently at 8570, so I’d better get started on those candle snuffers…

 

Candle snuffers

60/1/1-2: Candle snuffers from Binfield.

 

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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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Given that we spend so much of our time looking at places on maps, it is hard not to pay attention to some of the more memorable place names.  There are some gems in the English countryside: places such as Nether Wallop in Hampshire, Wyre Piddle in Worcestershire, and my personal favourite address in Berkshire, Rotten Row, Tutts Clump.  It certainly leads one to think about the origins and etymology of those names.  We notice patterns when cataloguing collections from particular counties; there are lots of places in Sussex with the name component –hurst, and lots in Somerset that include Coombe or Combe.  Incidentally, hurst is a reference to a ‘wooded hill’, and Combe essentially means ‘valley’ (see below for a link to a great website you can search for information like this). 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently spent a lot of time cataloguing ploughs, and one of the most interesting things about the earlier ploughs is that their names often include the name of the county in which they were designed to be used.  Ploughs might be heavy or light for different soil types or the gradient of the landscape.  It is interesting to think that the names of the places in which those ploughs might have been used often reflect those same features of the landscape.  At school in Redditch we were often told that the town was named for the bright red clay that passes for soil in the local area, and like Combe above, many other place names relate to hill and valley features.  As objects often show the links between people and places, so too do the names we call those places.

 

Gloucestershire Long Plough (54/91)

This is a Gloucestershire Long Plough (54/91), used at Bangrove Farm, Winchcombe. The farmer who used it said that the heavy plough was made to cope with the local clay-like soil, and that he had to hitch five Suffolk punch horses to it to get it going 'full pelt'.

Reading, like many other places, is formed of a personal name and the –ing component – it means ‘the people of Reada’.  Reada, according to an article in The Independent, was ‘an otherwise forgotten man… whose name suggests that he had red hair’.  This feels appropriate, given that I am a redhead myself.  Another somewhat amusing place name etymology is that of Nottingham.  It is formed of a personal name, the ­–ing component, and the –ham component.  In total, it formed Snotta-ingas-ham – the village of Snot’s people.  Nottingham is, all things considered, a rather better name.

It is outside the scope of this project to start recording the origins of the place names we are entering into a hierarchy.  A project which is carrying out this valuable task is the Survey of English Place Names, at the English Place-Name Society and the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham (or, the University of the village of Snot’s people).  On their website, you can search a map with information about the origins of English place names.  There is also a wealth of websites and books out there with information about this fascinating area.  For me, it remains an interesting side topic to the main geographical cataloguing I do.  Noticing these sorts of patterns in the names of places in different areas of the country helps me to get an even better appreciation of the significance of place and the landscape for people’s lives, and consequently, the objects in MERL’s collections.

Perhaps there are some other great place names out there that you know about, or places that mean something to you – do comment on this post and share them.  We might even have catalogued an object from there – we can let you know!

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I’ve spent the past nine weeks enhancing the catalogue records for the basketry collection at MERL in preparation for trialling an online exhibition using the ‘exhibitions tool’ on our database, Adlib. Our basketry collection, comprising 637 baskets and basketmaking tools, is, like all of the collections at MERL, Designated as being of national importance. They are also national in scope, with baskets from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL. While we hold quite a lot of information about the collection, very little of it was available on Adlib… until now! In the 1960s Dorothy Wright, author of ‘The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry’ and an authority on all things basket-related, studied the collection and completed detailed ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms. She also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

Key subsets of the baskets include:

  • Emily Mullins Collection – Emily Mullins was a Reading basketmaker who gave about 200 baskets and tools to the Museum, making baskets specifically for MERL and donating the contents of her workshop.
  • British Council Collection – these baskets toured Australia and New Zealand in the early 1950s as examples of traditional British craftsmanship.
  • Pilcher Collection of Victorian Baskets
  • Dorothy Wright Collection

A MERL 'Catalogue of baskets' form completed by Dorothy Wright.

My task has been to put all that information into the catalogue, taking into account the different needs of the basket specialist and non-specialist. This is what I have been putting in:

  • Production: who made it, where, when
  • Usage: who used it, where, when
  • Acquisition: who gave it to MERL, from where, when
  • Description: information for the non-specialist – a description of the shape of the basket, what it is made from, what it was used for, who used it, dialect names etc.
  • Scan of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – this includes additional information about material, construction technique, dimensions, distribution, sources of reference. It also shows numerous crossings out and amendments which may be of interest to the specialist.
  • Transcription of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – a transcription of the form in the ‘Object History Note’ field enables the information in the form to be searched
  • Photograph

The photograph and scans of the form are still waiting to be uploaded, but this is what the records should now all look like:

The 'Rapid Object Entry' screen for a fully enhanced basket record.

I spent a very long time thinking about how to name the baskets and tools in a simple and searchable way. I think Felicity must be fed up of hearing me talk about object names for baskets! In fact, we could easily write a long post on the trials of naming objects!  We consulted SPECTRUM, the standard for museum cataloguing, for guidance on object names, confirming that an object can have multiple names, and for guidance on the use of titles.  In terms of searchability, we had to consider what ways and terms people will use to search the catalogue and whether the object name will bring up the desired results. In terms of simplicity, we had to consider the variety of object names used and whether we wanted an infinite number or a restricted number (as Ollie envisages eventually having a drop down list of object names for the whole Museum).

Tools were fairly easy to name and each was given two names – the name of the tool (e.g. Bodkin; Needle; Chisel; Shave; Cleave) and the name ‘Tool, basketry’. The baskets themselves were more challenging. We looked at various ways of naming them – the detailed names given by Dorothy Wright, names based on the content (e.g. Basket, herring), the process they were used in (e.g. Basket, fishing), the accepted name (e.g. Basket, herring cran) etc. Eventually we opted mainly for a simplified content-based approach (e.g. Basket, fish; Basket, animal; Basket, fruit) with some exceptions (e.g. Basket, shopping; Basket, bicycle; Basket, gardening). For objects that aren’t specifically ‘baskets’ (as in vessels for containing things) they were given two object names (e.g. Basket, chair and Basketwork; Trap, eel and Basketwork). Commonly accepted names such as ‘Devon splint basket’, ‘trug’ and ‘kishie’ were added as Titles. Hopefully, any further information is captured in the description.

If you’re a basketmaker reading this, please have a look at our online catalogue, Enterprise, and let me know what you think! (Although we have been experiencing problems with Adlib re-naming objects of its own accord, so there might be a few anomalies until we get that sorted.)

But my work with the baskets isn’t over yet – there are still some baskets which need accessioning and then I need to experiment with the exhibitions tool and look at putting together an online exhibition.

Top left: 63/602 'Basket, fish' - Quarter cran herring basket. Top right: 65/205 'Basket, fruit' - Kentish kibsey. Bottom left: 77/321 'Basket, gardening' - Trug. Bottom right: 91/38 'Basket, potato' 'Basket, feeding' - Devon splint.

 

 

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