Stakeholders

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MERL 86/147/2. A lipwork basket made by Alec Coker and Doris Johnson - two craftspeople who were experts in straw work. We have a few lipwork baskets that might be examined during the Stakeholders study visit. However, these baskets are nothing compared to the impressive lipwork chairs I saw at St Fagans.

MERL 86/147/2. A lipwork basket made by Alec Coker and Doris Johnson – two craftspeople who were experts in straw work. We have a few lipwork baskets that might be examined during the Stakeholders study visit. However, these baskets are nothing compared to the impressive lipwork chairs I saw at St Fagans.

Apologies for the absence of a Stakeholders post last week. We’ve all been kept very busy with the Our Country Lives project (for the redevelopment of MERL) – although I did escape on Tuesday to visit St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, where I was lucky enough to have a guided tour around the basketry collection (lots of amazing lipwork chairs, beautiful cyntells, and some thought-provoking lobster pots). I do, however, have some good Stakeholders news – all of the participants have now been confirmed! So today I’d like to introduce you to five of them.

Bunty Ball is Vice-President and Past Chairman of the Basketmakers’ Association, and was given a lifetime achievement award this year by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers in recognition of her contribution to and support for basketmaking – as an art, a craft and a trade. She specialises in and teaches chair-seating – in cane, rush, willow and skein willow.

Hilary Burns originally trained as a fabric weaver, before taking up basketmaking in the 1980s. She works mainly with willow and hedgerow materials, producing both functional and sculptural pieces inspired by her study of traditional basketry techniques. Hilary is a co-founder of Basketry and Beyond, a voluntary organisation in the South West which promotes the use of natural materials and sustainable construction, and visited MERL as part of the organisation’s preparation for their Festival in May this year. She also teaches basketry to adults and children.

Mary Butcher is President of the Basketmakers’ Association. She was awarded an MBE last year for her services to basketmaking, and became a ‘Crafts Skills Champion’ at the Craft Skills Awards in May this year. Mary started out as a willow specialist, learning local traditional work from apprenticed makers, but now makes traditional and contemporary work in a wide range of materials, and using a wide range of techniques. She is committed to the transmission of basketry knowledge – researching the history of basketry, writing on the craft from both a historical and practical perspective, and teaching and mentoring. Mary has also curated and exhibited in innumerable exhibitions (solo and collaborative) and installations.

Sue Kirk describes herself as an ecological basketmaker. She works in willow, using a mixture of organically home-grown willow (she grows over fifteen varieties) and Somerset willow, making traditional and contemporary baskets and sculptures. Sue also teaches and runs workshops for beginners and improvers.

John Page began his basketmaking career with a City & Guilds course in creative basketry at the City Lit, having been greatly impressed by the Crafts Council’s Contemporary International Basketry exhibition. He now teaches rushwork at the City Lit and coordinates the course, and brings his students to MERL to view the basketry collections. He also edits the Basketmakers’ Association newsletter, and repairs harps.

I’m off to the Basketmakers’ Association AGM at the Artworkers’ Guild in London tomorrow, so hope to see some of you there! If you’re in Reading tomorrow, don’t forget to come along to Apple Day at MERL, 13.00-17.00.

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MERL 70/223 and 70/224. Two of the four 'Southport boat' baskets included in Stakeholders. Are all in Southport boats made using the same materials and the same construction techniques?

MERL 70/223 and 70/224. Two of the four ‘Southport boat’ baskets included in Stakeholders. Are all in Southport boats made using the same materials and the same construction techniques?

107 baskets have been initially selected for study in the Stakeholders project. These are baskets that have never been looked at by a basketmaker, or someone with expert knowledge. By and large, they are baskets which do not have one of Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms (transcribed and scanned as part of A Sense of Place). With a few exceptions, they were all acquired by MERL after 1970.

107 seems like an awful lot of baskets for 10 makers to look at it in 2 days, so I’ve started the process of prioritising them. I haven’t used any set criteria for these, but have tried to take the following into account:

  • Whether we already know something about the materials – bearing in mind that there could be errors
  • Whether we already know something about the techniques – again bearing in mind that there could be errors
  • Whether the basket has a complicated weave or combinations of weaves – I’m going on a course called ‘How to Read Baskets’ at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse in November where I’ll learn to recognise different materials and identify basic techniques
  • Whether the basket is of particular interest for some reason – such as having an interesting use or provenance, or an unusual appearance etc.

There are some baskets which I’ve instantly catgegorised as low priority. These include:

  • Samples
  • Miniatures
  • Spale baskets  – the construction/techniques are obvious
  • Assembly baskets (such as trugs and Devon splint baskets) – again, the construction/techniques are obvious

There are still some baskets I’m unsure about. For instance, 4 ‘Southport boat’ baskets are included in Stakeholders but are they all the same? Are they all made in the same way using the same construction/weave? Do we need to look at all of them or will one do? And how do I choose which one?

I’m still working on this process – I currently have about 55 in the high priority category (which seems a bit too many), 17 as medium priority, and 44 as low priority.

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MERL 70/149. A 'malt skep', used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging it across the malthouse floor.

MERL 70/149. A ‘malt skep’, used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to the working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging the skep across the malthouse floor.

This week I’ve started thinking about how best to record the information that we gather during the project. I’ve been exploring the functionality of Adlib, our collections database, to see what sort of things we can record and where. Adlib has specific fields for ‘materials’ and ‘techniques’ which we don’t currently use – these are something I want to experiment with during Stakeholders (which might also benefit other work, such as the craft cataloguing for another project I’m working on, Reading Connections). The advantage of these fields is that they are searchable and, because they are terminology-controlled, the terms used can be standardised.

I’ve also been thinking about how to record some of the more detailed information that we’ll hopefully gather. My current thoughts are to complete a detailed recording form for each basket which can then be attached to the database record, in a similar manner to Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms, but hopefully with slightly more detail. We could fill in everything we already know, add to it during the workshop visit, and circulate to participants afterwards for them to check and add any additional information. However, this wouldn’t be searchable as an attachment but it would mean that the information was there – I need to discuss this idea with Ollie and see what he thinks.

I’ll also need to think about how to record more general and perhaps tangential information that will inevitably emerge – things like memories and reminiscences, makers’ personal experiences, related photos and films etc.

I’ve also been taking advantage of the MERL Library to look for basket-related books and have started to compile a list of key terms – focusing on materials, techniques, and names for parts of a basket. So far, I’ve been through the Basketmakers’ Association’s list of terms, Mary Butcher’s Willow Work, and Sue Gabriel and Sally Goymer’s The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques. If anyone has any other recommendations, or knows of any good existing lists of terms, please let me know!

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MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we're hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but no nothing about its construction and the techniques used in it.

MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we’re hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but know nothing about its construction and the techniques used.

It’s been as busy as ever at MERL over the past few weeks, what with putting up the new temporary exhibition, Collecting the Countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and preparations for the Berkshire Show this weekend, amongst other things. However, I’ve managed to find some time to start planning for Stakeholders, our new basketry project, and it turns out that there’s an awful lot to think about!

My priority over the past few weeks has been to find the ‘established’ and ‘emergent’ basketmakers to participate in the project. I’ve nearly got everyone confirmed, and will hopefully introduce them to you in a few weeks’ time. My next priority has been to identify the baskets that we intend to study in the course of Stakeholders, and establish what information we already know about them and what we want to find out. This is a work in progress.

As well as the logistical side of things, there’s also a lot of other preparation that needs doing in advance of the two-day hands-on workshop at MERL to study the baskets. I’m slightly worried about how many baskets it’s actually possible for ten people to look at in two days, so I want to make a list of those baskets that I feel it’s essential to look at (e.g. the ones we know least about, or the ones that seem to be the most interesting) so that we can prioritise them. I also want to pool together any readily accessible existing information about these baskets/types of baskets, e.g. from the MERL Library and Classifieds. I then need to think about what information we want to record about the baskets (e.g. materials and techniques in particular), how to record that information during the workshop, and how to incorporate that information into the database. Thankfully, the visit from Basketry and Beyond in May gave me some experience for how to run such a session.

In the longer term, I also need to think about the commissions aspect of the project and the final outcomes including, we hope, some form of temporary or touring exhibition.

Lots to think about, so I’d better get back to it…

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Radcliffe Trust baskets

Some of the baskets to be studied in ‘Stakeholders’. Clockwise form top left. MERL 69/196, MERL 70/224, MERL 96/94, MERL 97/94.

For those of you who have been following the MERL Projects blog, you’ll know that we’ve been doing quite a bit of work with MERL’s basketry collections over the past eighteen months. We now have the opportunity to build on that work with Stakeholders, a new project generously funded by The Radcliffe Trust, which will explore the collection in more detail.

MERL has an excellent and extensive basketry collection comprising over 620 baskets, basketwork objects and basketmaking tools. However, of these, approximately 100 baskets have never been studied by a specialist, meaning there is a significant gap in knowledge about these baskets. The aim of Stakeholders is to address this gap and provide much-needed enhancements to the knowledge we hold in relation to the collection, and to the collection itself.

Stakeholders will entail an intensive two-day hands-on workshop at MERL with established and up-and-coming makers to examine this subset of un-studied baskets, to support two strands of activity.

  • Strand 1 will facilitate peer to peer (i.e. established maker to up-and-coming maker) and specialist to non-specialist (i.e. maker to Museum staff) sharing of skills- and materials-based knowledge, relating largely to basket construction, history and use.
  • Strand 2 will result in the commissioning of new pieces from emerging makers to address gaps and/or produce replicas of vulnerable baskets in the wider MERL collection. These items will be accessioned into the MERL collection.

Stakeholders will not only contribute to our understanding of the collection, but will also enable us to enhance our resources, inspire creativity, and foster community stewardship amongst emergent makers.

I’ll hopefully be posting regular updates on the progress of the project here, and have grouped all previous basket-related posts under the category ‘Stakeholders’ to make searching for basket-related blog content a lot easier.

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