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.
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!
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.
The Caterpillar ‘Molly May’, part of the collection at S. E. Davis.
Apologies for the Wizard of Oz reference in the title – I couldn’t help myself. To finish the week, I thought I’d post an update on what I have been working on over the past couple of weeks. We recently asked some of our MERL tour guides for feedback about what sort of objects visitors seem to be most interested in, with a particular interest in place. The answer that came back was “wagons and ploughs”. This didn’t really surprise me, as I remember on my own first visit to the museum I immediately wanted to find a wagon from Worcestershire, the county in which I grew up. As it turns out, we don’t actually have a wagon from Worcestershire, but we do have plenty from many other counties. I spent a few days enhancing the catalogue records for all the wagons in MERL’s collection, and after than moved on to the ploughs.
Cataloguing in this way does have certain advantages. Spending a number of days immersed in information about a particular type of object gives you a much better chance of getting to understand those objects, and what is most relevant and important to record about them. This is particularly useful when trying to tidy up the object name thesaurus for such objects. In contrast, if you only catalogue one wagon in every 300 records it is much harder to get an overall picture of wagons and their variations. Of course, it does help when you are interested in the objects you are spending up to week cataloguing exclusively. On the other hand, cataloguing chronologically gives a really good insight into the history of the collection and how it developed over time, as well as being a logical and consistent way to progress towards our goal of 10,000 records by the end of the year. It is interesting to consider how the order in which we catalogue objects might be influencing the way in which we are cataloguing them.
As well as the wagons and ploughs, I have also catalogued the objects in one particular gallery location: the saddlery case in the ‘Leather’ section of the Museum. This is part of a small part of the project I am working on, where we’re trying to think of ways of making the enhanced catalogue records more accessible to visitors who are actually standing in the Museum, looking at the objects. One of the ways we are thinking of doing this is using QR codes. This is one outcome of our work with iMuse (see Working with iMuse and Historypin), and we have been able to think a lot about the benefits and practicalities of using QR code technology in a museum context. Now that all of the objects in the saddlery case have been enhanced, we will be able to generate a QR code which, when scanned using a smartphone, will direct the visitor to the enhanced database entries for those objects. As a starting point, this should enable them to access far more information about the objects than would be possible with in-gallery text labels. Of course, QR codes aren’t perfect: not all of our visitors will have smartphones, for a start. As an initial idea to trial, though, we hope that it will give us some useful feedback with which to move forward.
One of the displays in the Saddlery Case, one area of the gallery in which we will be trialling the use of QR codes.