Placement at the Museum – Place-Names on the Isle of Axholme

Kathryn Bullen, University of Nottingham

Placement Opportunity

Keen to gain experience working within a museum environment, I also wanted to share some of my research findings with the local community. Happily, a placement opportunity arose at the North Lincolnshire Museum. In October 2021 I joined the project team helping to organise the forthcoming exhibition on the Isle of Axholme. The exhibition opens in March 2022 and runs until October 2022. It aims to celebrate the great work of the Isle of Axholme and Hatfield Chase Landscape Partnership and will mark the end of their funding. It will help reconnect the local community with their unique local landscape and heritage. 

One of my buzzwords is community engagement.  Over the last couple of years, I have taken part in many of the landscape partnership’s workshops and events. These have ranged from archaeological digs to historical building surveys and more. I have built up a network of local historians and links with local/national organisations, including Historic Lincolnshire, Project Wildscape, the British Association of Local History, the Digital Museum, and the recently formed North Lincolnshire Heritage Network. I hope to expand this network during the museum placement.

Digging Into My Research – the Background

As a place-name researcher I need knowledge of many disciplines, including language, history, geography, and archaeology. A place-name is a descriptive label used to name a location and identify features of that location.  Place-names can provide details of landscape features, flora and fauna, farming practices, organisational, social and religious practices, and names of significant landowners or leaders at the time of place-name coinage. So, in many ways my role can be described as an archaeologist of names, digging up all the evidence I can find and setting this against the historical and landscape context.

My PhD research looks at the impact of language, history and landscape on place-names on the Isle of Axholme. Axholme means ‘the island by Haxey’, from the Old Norse holmr ‘island, water-meadow’. It became known as an island because of the surrounding network of interconnected waterways. Significant alterations to the landscape occurred following drainage and land reclamation in the seventeenth century, when the landscape changed from a marshy area liable to flooding into productive agricultural land. Therefore, contemporary place-names may not now reflect their original meanings at the time of place-name coinage. But meanings may well become more relevant in the future following likely environmental changes. 

The Isle of Axhome from a map in The Manuscript in the Red Box, 1903.

I began my research by collecting and examining early spellings to recover the meanings of place-names. This involves gathering historical forms of place-names from archives, maps and other sources. A place-name survey is wide-ranging, including not just settlement names, but also rivers and waterways, farm names, street-names and field-names. After collecting, I identify the languages spoken by the name-givers, and the elements that make up the place-name. Axholme lies in the area historically known as the Danelaw, which is a name given to the eastern part of England. It is where the laws of the Danes/Vikings held power from the 9th to 11th centuries. Therefore, we might expect the language of the Vikings to have influenced many of the place-names, but the place-names that have been handed down to us were given in two main languages. These are Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons from c.600-c.1100, and Old Norse, the Scandinavian language of the Vikings.

My research will provide material for a publishable volume of the English Place-Name Society, contributing to the survey for Lincolnshire. Since 1923 the English Place-Name Society has been collecting place-names for each county.  Many surveys are complete, but work is still ongoing, and gaps remain. Anyone who is interested in the origins, meaning, and significance of English place-names will find the survey helpful. This includes historians, archaeologists and environmentalists.

Lincolnshire Archives: HAXEY PAR 23 (1 to 56).

The Placement So Far

My placement at the North Lincolnshire Museum is funded by Midlands4Cities (part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council) from October 2021 to October 2022. I have chosen to spread the placement part-time over 13 months, which works out at around 2 days per week. In this way I can appreciate the full process of organising, managing and delivering an exhibition.

The first 6 months of the placement are being spent developing accessible materials and designing the exhibition space. I am working in conjunction with the museum and liaising with other members of the project team. I have written and prepared five panels for the exhibition, which are currently with the graphic designer before printing. By joining regular museum team meetings, I am appreciating the diverse work of museum staff who work in a variety of venues in North Lincolnshire. I have gathered useful skills by completing relevant local authority training, attending a public history course, and successfully passing my project management foundation award.

Once the exhibition goes live, the remaining 7 months will be spent delivering the project to the wider community. Presentations and workshops will be offered alongside partnership and museum staff. To complement the visual exhibition, I aim to produce a digital offer with a focus on Axholme place-names, which will encourage the local community to engage online with the exhibition. I will be creating interactive place-name quizzes and material for children and adults. In addition, I will be offering a presentation relating to place-names in the Isle of Axholme. This will show some of the evidence of Axholme’s watery landscape from place-names and will also ask how what we know of the past can help manage future environmental challenges.

What’s Next

The museum placement is helping me to achieve my aim of making my research reach a wider audience. Sharing my research will benefit the local community by promoting a greater appreciation for the local landscape and its connection with place-names. It will also provide an awareness of possible changes in the future, which connect Axholme with its more watery past.  The placement is proving to be a valuable opportunity to develop skills and knowledge in exhibition design and project management. I am looking forward to the next stage in the development of the exhibition – an update on progress will follow later in the placement in a further guest blog!

Axholme Place-names

University of Nottingham research page

Midlands4Cities research page

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