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I spent last Thursday to Sunday in Killarney, Co. Kerry, at the annual conference of the Society for Folk Life Studies. Having just assumed that, in Ireland in September, it would probably be raining, I turned up with waterproof and boots, only to find the entire weekend was hot and sunny! The conference was held at the beautiful Lake Hotel in Killarney and Muckross House, a heritage site which includes a stately home, traditional farm and working craftspeople. (And two adorable Irish wolfhounds called Sadhbh and Saoirse – alas, too big for Ryanair hand-luggage).

The conference's beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse!

The conference’s beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse! (Images by the author)

The conference proper began on Friday morning with papers covering such topics as the impact of people on landscape, Kerry calendar customs and the 1930s Irish Schools’ Folklore Collection Scheme. I was also particularly interested to hear Brian Coakley and Deidre McCarthy’s paper The folklore and folklife of a section of the Kerry Way. Their project used mobile technology to make folklore/life content available to tourists walking the Kerry Way trail and I found it interesting to compare their experiences with MERL’s A Sense of Place project and our similar experiments with mapping and mobile technology.

Friday afternoon saw us on a tour of Muckross House and Traditional Farms. The farms contain a number of authentically re-created buildings such as a labourer’s cottage and a strong farmer’s house and barn, as well as traditionally grown crops and reared livestock. We saw a number of demonstrations including blacksmithing and straw-rope making, and were able to try soda bread made in the cottages with unpasteurised milk from the farms’ cows.

The after-dinner entertainment on Friday included a surprise performance from a local ‘Biddy Group’, a St. Brigid’s Day custom we had heard about from Patricia O’Hare in the morning session which involves local group rivalry, dressing up and disguise, music and dance, and the collection of funds from well-wishers (traditionally used for a feast but now more commonly collected for charity).

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a performance from a local Biddy Group.

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a local Biddy Group. (Images by the author)

Saturday morning’ papers informed us about the conservation of the Kerry bog pony, the archaeology of Irish bog butter and understanding nineteenth century Irish marriage traditions through art. Our afternoon excursion took us to Ross Castle, the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan on the shores of Lough Leane, as well as Aghadoe ecclesiastical remains, Ogham stones at Beaufort and the scenic Gap of Dunloe. In the evening we were treated to a wonderful dinner and night of Irish folk music, dance and storytelling in the strong farmer’s house at Muckross.

The weekend’s final papers covered the history of the creamery in rural Ireland, farming and the landscape and the traditional music of North Kerry. The conference was action-packed from start to end and by the end I felt ready for a holiday just to recover, but the varied papers, fascinating excursions, stimulating conversations and beautiful setting made the exhaustion well worth-it! Next year’s conference will be held at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and based on this year’s experience, I will definitely be attending.

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year - the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied!

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year – the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied! (Image by the author; BCLM photograph reproduced courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/424167)

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting stuck in to research for the Reading Engaged project. Along with others in the museum and archive team, I’ll be spending the rest of the year researching content that will hopefully be featured in the re-displayed museum galleries. I’ve made a start by really getting to grips with the yearly round of agricultural and rural processes, from ploughing to harvesting and everything in-between. I’ve been focussing on everything from the story of agricultural mechanisation to the politics of agricultural labourers’ unions to oral histories and personal stories.

Maths of ploughing!

A rather terrifying page I encountered whilst researching ploughing!

Two of the topics I’ve researched so far have particularly captured my imagination: hop picking and charcoal burning. I can’t wait to read more about hop picking and the stories of the huge variety of people who joined the migrant labour force in the hop gardens of Kent and other counties every year. There seem to be varying accounts of whether it actually made anybody any money and whether it was viewed as work or a holiday, but thousands of families kept going for generations regardless.

Hop pickers.

An archive image of hop pickers.

If I’m totally honest with myself, too, the main reason I was so keen to research charcoal burning was my memories of watching the charcoal burning scene in the 1974 film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons. I was somewhat disappointed to find no reference in my research to the practice of keeping an adder in a cigar box for good luck like Old Billy and Young Billy did! I think, though, that if I can be fascinated by charcoal burning because it featured in my favourite childhood book, it is because the story provides a familiar hook to what is essentially a process with very little connection to my life. For many of our visitors we hope be able to provide similar hooks, whether that’s the engaging personal story of a migrant hop-picker from London’s east end, a demonstration of how to use a particular hand tool, or a discussion of the links between farm mechanisation and wider world events.

We’ll continue to keep you updated throughout our research, particularly if we come across any particularly interesting objects or stories.

P.S. For others who haven’t grown out of loving Swallows & Amazons, here’s some fascinating posts on Sophie Neville’s blog about filming the charcoal burning scene (Sophie played Titty Walker in the 1974 film).

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Last week I attended the AGM and conference of the Rural Museums Network. The RMN, of which MERL is a member, is an organisation which exists to support and promote the work of museums with collections relating to the UK’s rural heritage. This year the two-day event was held in Worcestershire, the first day at S.E. Davis & Son Ltd in Redditch and the second day at Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove.

S.E. Davis is a family owned company which is thought to have the biggest private collection of historic agricultural and earth-moving machinery in the country. They hosted the first day of presentations, during which we heard talks on the debate about conservation versus operation of historic machinery, the work of heritage farming ‘Skills for the Future’ trainees in East Anglia, and the conservation of a windmill at Avoncroft Museum. It was fascinating to take a tour of the collection at S.E. Davis – I was stunned by the scale of it, and its significance both nationally and internationally. Just a few items that stand out in my memory are dredgers used on the Suez Canal, and a tractor used on HMS Arc Royal to push redundant jets into the sea. The collection must have required enormous inputs of time and money from the Davis family, with many of the vehicles and machines having been saved from scrap merchants at the last minute. It was interesting to discuss the different challenges facing museums and private collectors, and the potential of greater collaboration between the two.

S E Davis

One small part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

The conference dinner was held at a pub not far from S.E. Davis. I arrived, conventionally, by car, but some lucky attendees were delivered to the pub in a trailer pulled by one of the family’s working steam engines. They might have had all the fun, but some were looking a little splattered with oil and soot by the time they arrived!

Traction engine

A working historic vehicle being put to good use as pub transportation.

The next day was the AGM of the network and I was able to update the other network members about the redevelopment work going on at MERL. Several other member organisations are also undergoing redevelopment so it was interesting and useful to compare notes and hear about work going on in other parts of the sector. We also had the opportunity to look around the buildings at Avoncroft, in particular the windmill which we had heard about the previous day. I used to volunteer at Avoncroft when I was a high school student, so it was lovely to have the chance to see what had changed since my last visit.

Caterpillar

The Caterpillar ‘Molly May’, part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

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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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Towards the end of last month I got to attend a training day run by Share Museums East called ‘The Wood from the Trees’. It was a day of training and advice about identifying and understanding different types of timber and their uses.

We started the day by going through some common terminology relating to wood, some of which I was familiar with and some of which was entirely new to me. I knew about softwood and hardwood, but not about the difference between sapwood and heartwood, and knew about knots and rings but not rays!

The next topic was the features and uses of eight common timber types: oak, ash, beech, sycamore, pine, mahogany, walnut and elm. Once we’d discussed their qualities and identifying features, we were given eight samples of wood to identify. My group got all eight right, but of course the task was made easier as we knew that they were each one of the specified eight that we had already talked about.

Wood identification samples

Wood samples and objects to practice our new-found identification skills on.

More difficult, but a more useful skill for someone working in a museum, was the next task. We were given a selection of wooden artefacts and asked to identify what they were made of.  My developing knowledge of baskets and basket-making gleaned from working with a basket enthusiast/obsessive helped me with the object in the photograph – a bicycle basket made of split oak by Owen Jones. The other objects we had to work with were much harder – objects are often polished and stained, making it harder to identify the wood by colour and texture.

The day was rounded off by a series of tasks designed to test how well we understood the different properties of types of wood. We imagined we were timber merchants offering advice to customers who wanted the right type of wood for a particular purpose. These skills should help me to make an educated guess at a wood I can’t directly identify, based on what the object was used for. My favourite fact from the day was that mahogany would actually be a brilliant wood for general-purpose outdoor functional uses. As a tropical hardwood it is very durable and good in wet conditions, but because it is so expensive you’d probably get some odd looks if you tried to make a farm gate out of it!

For anybody who’d like to find out more about wood identification, the course leader Robin Hill recommended the book ‘What Wood is that? The Manual of Wood Identification’ by Herbert L. Edlin.

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MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

September has come around again and so has the Royal County of Berkshire Show. I spent this Saturday helping out on the University of Reading’s stand, where this year’s theme was fruit. There were Berkshire varieties of apples on display, single-variety apple juices to sample, old films from the MAFF Advisory films service about pruning fruit trees and storing apples to watch, a ‘bumble-arium’ with live bees buzzing around and a bee-expert on hand to answer all the bee-related questions, and fun activities including making a bee hotel (or should that be a Bee & Bee ?), making a fruity fizzy drink and pedalling your own smoothie on the smoothie bike. The stand was really popular and did really well again – winning two first prizes at the Show.

When not helping out with the activities and telling people about MERL I had the chance to wander around the Show and take a look at what else was on offer. The Show is absolutely massive so I barely got a chance to see anything but I did come across some really interesting things which I wanted to share – although I’m sure you’ll notice a bit of the usual craft-bias coming through…

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice...

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice…

Having just catalogued the thatching collections at MERL (we’ve got about 200 thatching objects, mostly tools), I’ve developed a bit of an interest in thatch. There were two Master Thatchers at the Show, and I managed to have a quick chat with both of them. One, Jack Challis of Little Thatch, specialises in scaling down the thatched roof for smaller structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels and even bird boxes – a great way to experience thatch if you don’t live in a thatched house! The other, Ben Fowler of Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers, let me have a quick go at thatching their display roof… not sure I was quite up to scratch but definitely the highlight of my day!

I also met a Cotswolds dry stone waller. What differentiates Cotswolds dry stone walling from that in the north of England is the shape of the stones used – they tend to be much flatter and squarer, giving the wall a distinct stratified appearance. Mark Roberts has been building the wall at the Newbury Showground for the past fifteen years or so – he only works on it for the two days of the Show each year but it continues to grow and most be over 100m by now.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

There was also a coracle maker – Peter Faulkner – who specialises in making coracles with a skin/hide covering. I find there’s a certain romanticism attached to the coracle and I’ve long been tempted by a coracle-making course at the Weald and Download Museum, but am yet to go on one. We do have two here at MERL (one of which we’ll be getting out for the pop-up exhibition on Friday 8 November) but ours are very different from Peter’s.

We were also keeping an eye out for apple presses for MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19 October, so were alert to all things apple. We came across a really interesting stand called My Apple Juice. I hate waste, especially wasting food, and was told that 90% of apples in private gardens go to waste – I was shocked! Richard Paget, who runs My Apple Juice, wants to recreate the Italian village olive press and have one communal apple press every twenty miles to address the issue of waste. He runs a service where you can take your apples and have them pressed, bottled and pasteurised, and even labelled with your own ‘brand’… MERL apple juice anyone?

So all in all, a fun day out with lots to think about!

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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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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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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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