Roy Brigden

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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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By way of a final aside (and with Royal-themed matters in the pipeline for the MERL Village Fete later this year) I thought it might be nice to cite MERL’s own Royal Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, who spoke on the subject of hefting to members of the farming community at a reception held in St James’s Palace on 29 January 2002:

“I wanted above all, to take this opportunity to salute you as part of the backbone of our precious countryside. As a consequence of the foot and mouth disaster many may have heard of hefted flocks for the first time and of the difficulty of re-establishing them once they have been removed. But do they realise that so many of you are actually hefted people – a crucial thread in the complex ‘organic’ tapestry that defines the essence of rural Britain? Unstitch that thread and the ancient tapestry will become featureless and abstracted; the countryside will lose that intangible element which comes from the continuity of wisdom and experience between generations. So I pray with all my heart that a way can be found for you and your children to continue caring for our unique landscape, and the special communities which form an intricate part of it.”  (Quoted in: Susan Haywood and Barbara Crossley The Hefted Farmer (Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria: Hayloft Publishing Ltd), 2005, p.5)

HRH Prince of Wales and Roy Brigden

HRH Prince of Wales and Roy Brigden

Please give it some thought and respond to this post to let us know where you feel most ‘hefted’ to and why. Are there objects and artefacts that remind you of places to which you have a connection?

If you are interested in more information on hefting and hill sheep farming, the following volumes are just some of the relevant literature available in the MERL library:

  • Susan Haywood and Barbara Crossley The Hefted Farmer (Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria: Hayloft Publishing Ltd, 2005)
  • Edward Hart The Practice of Hefting (Shropshire: The Farmers Fund, 2004)
  • Various authors Herding a Hill Hirsel: How to do it and how not to do it (Glasgow: Scottish Agricultural Publishing Co. Ltd, 1929

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In order for us to facilitate connectivity between collections and particular audiences it is vital that we first take steps to find out not only what we have but where it comes from, where it was used, where it was acquired, and any other places it may be in some way associated with. Of course, this may take us far beyond the bounds of England and it will begin to reveal the rich tapestry of local, national, and international relations from which the MERL collections emerged. Nevertheless, much like Roy Brigden’s connection with a new environment, or my own familial links with farming communities of the Scottish Borders, each of us understands place from their own subjective vantage point, wherever and whatever these diverse locales might be. As such, we must be mindful of not only the diversity of our collections but also of the multiplicity of reasons why our audiences may themselves feel hefted to particular places.

A Herdwick sheep

A Herdwick on a Lakeland farm

So, if nothing else these thoughts will hopefully encourage the wider curatorial community to embed place-related data in their catalogues wherever possible, and to capitalise on the potential for new avenues of engagement that might emerge from focussing purposefully on a ‘sense of place’. Through greater acknowledgement of the origins, use-history, and acquisition sources of museum holdings, such collections can be rendered applicable and relevant to particular locations, and re-located (or ‘hefted’) in relation to the modern-day communities within those places and spaces. Equally, for those audiences searching within museum stores or displays for a conceptual hook to render those resources relevant to them as an individual, what better way to maximise their chances of finding such a link than by making explicit the multitude of diverse places associated with the artefacts themselves.

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Despite the obvious relevance to the subject matter of this museum and links to my own personal heritage, what particularly intrigues me about the practice of hefting is the degree to which it’s proponents and practitioners (by which I mean the shepherds and rural people who maintain it rather than the sheep!) have as powerful and marked a sense of place as their ovine charges. This simple observation runs parallel to Roy Brigden’s reflections on hefting. He used the term to characterise the degree to which he had come to find himself indelibly linked to his adoptive countryside home. As individuals, we are hefted to many places for many different reasons. Many of us retain a strong sense of connection to the place(s) we grew up and most of us develop a new sense of belonging in other places as our lives progress. In addition, there are complex generational links to place, such as the sense of connection I feel to Stadhampton, Oxfordshire, where my mother grew up on a dairy farm. The project team have already enhanced data associated with at least one artefact from this village and, although it is a simple mouldboard from a plough, the fact that it comes from Stadhampton gives it a certain significance for me.

Catalogue card for a mouldboard

The original index card for a mouldboard from Stadhampton, Oxfordshire

I think that the simple metaphor of the ‘heft’ has much to offer social history museums (perhaps especially those of rural history) in terms of characterising the place-related ways in which audiences connect with collections. Thinking of things in these more lyrical and emotive ways may help us to create a more nuanced sense of place in relation to the collections we look after. Potential stakeholders in the MERL collections are numerous and include specialist interest groups and local audiences, both of which have often been fore-grounded in past engagement activities and projects. However, in recent years, ethnographic ideas and have brought the notion of source communities increasingly to the fore. Museum collections offer potential for tangible engagement with the pasts associated with places to which people are indelibly hefted through both familial ties and other connections. They also offer a means for people to begin to connect themselves to new locales, perhaps using material culture held in museums as a means of familiarising themselves with a new place of residence, and thereby cultivating a deeper sense of place.

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Since the project team started the data-enhancement, I think we have all begun to think more deeply about ideas concerned with place. We have begun to ask ourselves what it means to feel rooted in, connected to, or familiar with particular locales. When Roy Brigden (the former Keeper of this Museum) retired in 2010 he referred in his farewell speech to the practice of ‘hefting’. Perhaps unfamiliar to many readers, this is the process of intensively herding flocks of upland sheep until they become accustomed to a particular grazing area. Once hefted in this way, such groups retain a kind of homing instinct that lasts across generations. Such livestock often has a greater financial value. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, it represents the durability of a hill farming practice that is centuries old.

A flock of Cheviot sheep

Gathering a hill flock at Lairg, Sutherland, in 1959

During the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 concern over the slaughter of hefted flocks was marked. In areas where the practice is most common (the north of England, the Scottish Borders, and parts of Wales) the impact of such decimation was seen in terms of not just the ruination of livelihoods but of unbroken traditions of herding being irreversibly interrupted, not to mention the difficulties associated with reinstating this system by training new flocks to recognise the old ground. As the son of a hill sheep farmer myself, I know a good deal about this practice and find it offers a useful way to begin conceptualising and characterising how I feel about the notion of ‘sense of place’ that gives name to this project.

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