Sense of Place

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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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From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity's poker.

From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity’s poker.

Felicity and I have been working on so many different and exciting things recently that we’ve got a bit of a blog-backlog, so I thought I’d give you a quick update on some of the things we’ve been up to (and hopefully more detailed posts will follow when we get a chance).

At the beginning of July, Felicity and I went on a one-day blacksmithing course at Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove as part of our bid to try out different crafts so that we have a better understanding of them and can catalogue them more accurately. We both made beautiful pokers – and the glorious weather we’ve been having recently has given us a chance to test them out on the BBQ.

The following week, we had two days of photography training at Reading Museum’s store – learning all about lenses, apertures, shutter speeds, focusing and so many other things – and then began photographing their 600 shortlisted Historic World Objects as part of the Reading Connections project.

Last week, six of us were lucky enough to go to Sweden (generously funded by ERASMUS) to visit the Nordic Museum and Skansen (one of the world’s oldest open air museums) in Stockholm. We also had a chance to visit the Gustavanium at the University of Uppsala. The main purpose of the visit was to exchange ideas and inform plans for future development at MERL – but we all had our own areas of focus. Felicity was concentrating on the presentation of ethnographic material, particularly relating to the Sami, while I was looking at how craft was represented.

This weekend, Felicity attended an international conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (thanks to funding from the PRM and Oxford ASPIRE) on the topic of The Future of Ethnographic Museums. She gave a poster and presentation on the work of A Sense of Place and its links to museum ethnography. (Ollie has written an interesting post for the Our Country Lives blog about how the ethnographic discourse relates to MERL.) The conference was the culmination of a five year project funded by the European Commission called Ethnography Museums and World Cultures.

And this week (thanks to funding from ERASMUS and the HCA) I’m attending Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible heritage, where I’ll be presenting a paper on basketry as heritage in the UK. The conference includes a day of workshop visits, and also has sessions on intangible heritage and traditional craft, and intangible heritage and museology, all of which I’m really looking forward to.

In the meantime, Laura has been doing a fantastic job with enhancing object records and giving them the ‘Sense of Place treatment’. She’s well on her way to getting us to the 1970s – at which point we’re planning a celebration 1970s style!

So there’s plenty to blog about and hopefully you’ll hear more about all of this soon.

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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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skills

On Wednesday 24 April 2013 we’re holding a Skills Sharing Day at MERL to discuss some of the recent collections development projects which have been taking place at MERL. This includes some of the projects we’ve been working on and blogging about over the past year – A Sense of Place, Collecting Rural Cultures and Countryside21. The day offers a unique opportunity to hear more about these projects and help us shape our future displays.

Please get in touch if you are interested in attending and would like to find out more.

 

Outline programme for the day

10.30: Arrival, registration, and coffee

11.00: Welcome and introduction to the day

11.15 Collecting Rural Cultures – case study and discussion

11.45 A Sense of Place – case study and discussion

12.15 Countryside21 – case study and discussion

12.45 Lunch and opportunity to view online resources, a selection of recent acquisitions and the current museum galleries

13.45 Our Country Lives – an introduction to key themes outlines in the Museum’s Round One bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund followed by facilitated discussion

14.45 Closing remarks and tea

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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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63_473

MERL 63/473.

Things have been a bit quiet on the Countryside21 front over the past month, so we’ve kept ourselves busy by ploughing on with cataloguing and satsifyingly reached yet another milestone on Friday – 11,000 records have now been enhanced!!!

The 11,000th record enhanced was part of the Bushell Brothers Collection. The Bushell Brothers ran a canal boat building and repair firm at Gannel in New Mill, Tring, on the Wendover Arm Canal, until their retirement in 1952. The lamp above (MERL 63/473) was painted by Charlie Bushell.

That still leaves another 7,600 which still need to be enhanced – I’m hoping that we’ll be able to plod our way through those when we have other quiet moments on Countryside21.

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IMG_6049

Over the past few months MERL has been working with an organisation called Basketry & Beyond, who have recently received a HLF-grant for a project to preserve and promote the heritage of basketry in the South West. This includes a Festival at the Dartington Estate in Totnes, Devon, in May to celebrate all aspects of basketry, with a focus on the themes of fishing, farming and fashion.

Yesterday six members of Basketry & Beyond came to MERL for a research visit to look at some of the baskets we have from the South West (the cataloguing work done as part of the Sense of Place project on the basketry collections means it was easy to identify this material – see an earlier post). The group were particularly interested in the types of baskets that are typical of the South West, rather than individual baskets that were made, used or acquired from the area but are not typical of the region. This included lobster pots and stores, Tamar chip baskets, Devon splint baskets, and salmon putchers. This research will be used to produce fact sheets about the history and heritage of the regional baskets, and will feed into an exhibition at the Festival.

This lobster store (MERL 64/206) was a lot bigger than I was expecting!

This lobster store (MERL 64/206) was a lot bigger than I was expecting!

We had a great day in the MERL stores. As well as having the baskets out to examine (some of which were surprisingly large) we had lots of books, pamphlets, magazine clippings, and photos from the MERL Library and Archives. There was a lot of sharing of knowledge – both ‘peer-to-peer’ between basketmakers (as everyone had their own area of expertise), and ‘specialist to non-specialist’ between the basketmakers and Ollie, Felicity and me ­– and plenty of exchanging of notes, articles, etc. Both sides now need to collate this information in meaningful ways – Basketry & Beyond for their fact sheets, and us to input into and disseminate via the online catalogue.

As well as being able to gather lots of useful information for the Festival, hopefully the session also gave Basketry & Beyond an opportunity to gain experience in researching and recording relevant information which they can use when visiting other institutions. We’re hoping to run this type of session again with other basketmakers to find out more about our basketry collections, particularly those which came in after 1970 and have never been examined by a basketmaker, so this was a good opportunity for us to figure out how what works well – the numbers of people it’s practical to work with, the number of baskets it’s possibly to look at in a day, the best way to record the information and feed it back into the catalogue, the things we need to have access to while working (the online catalogue, a scanner, a photocopier etc.).

You can find out more about the Festival on the Basketry & Beyond website and their Facebook page.

You can find out more about the baskets we looked at yesterday by visiting our online catalogue.

60/442 (Hive, skep; Basketwork); 60/444 (Basket, bird – ‘fowl crate’); 64/22 (Trap, salmon – ‘putcher’); 64/23 (Trap, salmon – ‘putcher’); 64/206 (Store, shellfish – ‘lobster store’); 64/207 (Pot, shellfish – ‘lobster pot’); 64/216 (Basket, fish – ‘maund’); 64/217 (Strainer, bilge; Basketwork); 65/284 (Pot, shellfish – ‘prawn pot’); 66/266 (Basket, fish – ‘cowel’); 66/347 (Basket, vegetable – ‘chip basket’), 66/348/1–2 (Basket, vegetable – ‘chip basket’); 68/92 (Basket, picnic; Bag); 68/561 (Basket, angler); 69/196 (Basket, vegetable – ‘black basket’); 71/224 (Basket, fruit; Basket, vegetable – ‘Worcestershire pot’); 91/38 (Basket, feeding; Basket, potato – ‘Devon splint’); 96/118 (Basket, feeding; Basket, potato – ‘Devon splint’).

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CDs

The initial phase of a new project is always a bit fuzzy, and seems to involve what can feel like endless circular discussions and feelings of not really knowing what you’re supposed to be doing or how best to go about doing something.  Thankfully, we’re beginning to emerge from that phase with our new project, Countryside21 (although we’re not quite there yet!).

It originally felt like it was quite difficult to translate the three main strands of Countryside21 – collating and structuring digital content, improving keywording of digital content, and developing the MERL image bank (see my introductory post to the project) – into actual day to day tasks for Felicity and me to do. However, we haven’t been idle….

Our first step was to get to grips with the MERL Classification, which will be the starting point for developing how we keyword our collections. (Until now I’ve never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it has been used.) This has involved looking at how the Classification has evolved over time – from its conception in the 1950s, to a more detailed version in the 1970s, and a simplified version in the 2000s. We’ve also been trying to find out about how it’s been used externally by other museums and institutions, and to consider how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums.

We’ve also been trying to get our heads around what terms we currently have in our ‘subject keyword’ thesaurus and the best way to go about tidying them up, as we know from our cataloguing for A Sense of Place that this is basically chaos (we’ve been ignoring it for the past year). We know that some terms shouldn’t be ‘subjects’ but should instead be categorised as ‘geographical keywords’ or ‘person and institutions’, and we also know that some ‘subjects’ appear multiple times in various forms and with various spellings, e.g. harvest, harvests, harvvest, harvesting etc.

Continuing with the idea of developing our keywording, we’ve been looking at how big commercial image banks such as Getty Images and i-stock keyword their images. We want to develop more emotive keywording based on the idea of ‘aboutness’, i.e. so not just what is actually depicted in an image, but also what the image is ‘about’ – ideas, emotions, concepts etc.

We’ve also started trying to collate all of MERL’s digital content and store it in one place, and to think about how to name image files in a standardised way which also relates to the object number or archival reference code. From next week, we’ll have a new volunteer project running to help us copy 500 CDs’ worth of images digitised as part of a 2002 New Opportunities Fund (NOF) project onto the server. In preparation for this, Felicity’s been trying automatic ways of renaming large numbers of files – otherwise it could take a long time!

I think it will take a few weeks before we feel like we’re fully underway with Countryside21, and for us to fully understand what we’re doing, but it feels good to be making progress.

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MERL P DX289 PH1_967

MERL P DX289 PH1_967

As the Sense of Place project draws to a close (although it’s not over yet!), Felicity and I are making a start on our next project, Countryside21. The project is funded by Arts Council England’s (ACE) Designation development fund and will run until October 2013. It’s quite a technical project and it’s taken a while for us to get our heads around it. It’s not a very exciting project to explain (although the outcomes will make life a lot easier), but I’ll give it a go!

The project has three main strands. The first is about collating and managing MERL’s digital content. Over the years the Museum has run various digitisation projects which have created about 50,000 digital copies (known technically as ‘virtual surrogates’) of items within the collections, such as scans of old photos and paper records, images of objects and documents, and copies of films and sound recordings. These have built up rather chaotically, so Countryside21 aims to locate them all in a single, structured system to help us better manage our digital content and give users better access to it. To do this, we’re going to integrate the MERL catalogue (Adlib) with the University of Reading’s existing ‘digital asset management’ system (AssetBank).

The second strand is about increasing the accessibility of the collections by making it easier for users (and us) to search them. We’re going to be doing this by improving the range and quality of the keywords we use when cataloguing things on Adlib. This will be a combination of reworking old keywords based on the MERL Classification (a blog post on this topic will follow shortly) and the current subject thesaurus, and adding new, more emotive keywords to describe content in new ways based on the idea of ‘aboutness’ (look out for a blog post on this in the near future too).

The final strand is about developing MERL’s existing image bank service.

Ultimately, Countryside21 is about ensuring that users, both inside and outside the Museum, have the greatest possible chance of identifying what they’re looking for in the collections.

You can read a slightly more detailed overview of Countryside21 on the project page. We’ll hopefully start blogging on a more regular basis again over the coming weeks – so please keep following the blog!

 

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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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