SHIC

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MERL Class 2013

For those of you who have been following my posts (here, here and here) on revising the MERL Classification, you’ll be pleased to hear that yesterday afternoon I finally finished the hard work on it!!! It’s now ready for a final round of consultation before I begin building it properly in Lexaurus, our vocabulary software. I’ve circulated the revised Classification to the Rural Museums Network mailing list, but if you’re not on the list and would like to see it, please send me an email.

As well as putting together the final Classification, and providing scope notes to help define the primary and secondary headings, I have also mapped each of the primary and secondary headings in the existing version to the new version, so that the changes can be implemented easily when everything has been finalised.

Having been immersed in the Classification for so long, it’s quite hard to take a step back so consultation will be really useful in ensuring that everything is clear and makes sense. For example, is it obvious what the primary and secondary headings mean and what falls under them? Are the scope notes clear and accurate, or do we need to add to the definitions and examples? Does the mapping between the existing and the new versions work? Are there any further mappings to be made between the MERL Classification and SHIC (Social History and Industrial Classification).

Despite being rather wary of the Classification at first, I’ve really enjoyed this process and I am really looking forward to seeing it when it’s done. And it will be great to hear what the rest of the rural museums sector thinks – from both those who use the MERL Classification (either in its current or previous form), and those who don’t.

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The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging – Felicity and I have been spending quite a lot of time at Reading Museum recently as part of the new joint project between MERL and Reading Museum, Reading Connections. I promised a long time ago to write about a post about the MERL Classification, which we’re reviewing and updating as part of Countryside21, and which we hope will be a starting point for developing new ways in which to keyword our collections.

Until the start of Countryside21 I had never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it was used. As part of the review process, I have been looking into the history of the Classification to understand how it came about and how it has evolved over time.

Classification systems are used by museums to organise data about their collections. The MERL Classification was devised by John Higgs, the first Keeper at MERL, specifically for the circumstances at MERL and was determined by the nature and content of the object collections. It was informed by existing classifications at the time, such as those used by the National Museum of Denmark, the Welsh Folk Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Classification was based on the idea that MERL is a folk museum and deals primarily with people and their lives, rather than with objects. As a result the classification of an object is driven by its sphere of use. It was initially used for the Object Collections, and later expanded to the Photographic Collections (photos of objects are classified according to their sphere of use; other photos are classified according to their subject content).

The MERL Classification was built on the premise that a classification should be as simple as possible, with the caveats that it must be workable and must bring material together in the right groups.  It originally had 24 primary headings, which could be sub-divided into secondary, tertiary and quaternary headings, each with a numerical notation. The Classification was intended to grow and develop with the expansion of the collection, with new divisions being created only when an accumulation of similar items made it clear what the heading should be. By 1978 the Classification had expanded to 33 primary headings. A review in the 1990s reduced this down to 31, and today the Classification is only used for objects – it is no longer used for photographs.

The review work on the Classification is nearly complete. This has involved consulting the wider rural museums sector to see if there are any institutions still using the MERL Classification (it has always been publicly available); considering how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums; and looking at how we can streamline the primary headings. Hopefully, we will be making some final decisions tomorrow, and will be publishing the revised Classification in due course.

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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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