Changing Faces: Dismantling the old Museum

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

The Museum has now been closed a little over two weeks, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy behind the scenes. Although visitors to our Archive & Library, steered through the shop to our tranquil Reading Room, may be entirely unaware of the scale of the work being done to strip away the old materials and objects from our galleries.


The changes within the galleries has been quite dramatic..

The physical work has been a massive logistical challenge and all credit should go to our Conservation Team, which is composed of our Conservator, a couple of staff members and volunteers (plus other colleagues when they have a moment). MERL is fairly unusual for a Museum of its size because we don’t have an offsite Store where we can keep our objects while work is ongoing. Although we considered hiring external storage we didn’t think our large objects, sturdy as they look, would survive the move without being damaged. As such, everything that is small has been removed, recorded and moved upstairs while we play a delicate game of Tetris with the remaining larger objects we cannot carry upstairs, or which we simply don’t have the room for.

So far we've managed to fill two skips with refuse!

So far we’ve managed to fill two skips with refuse!

Objects have been carefully packed into one side of the Museum.

Objects have been carefully packed into one side of the Museum.

As everything gets tidied away, however, it has become very clear that our building, constructed in 2004, is now a blank slate for our redevelopment. Without the objects we are left with grey floors, white walls and open spaces which we are eagerly filling with new stories and themes on English rural life.

Work in the galleries is almost ready for the builders to move into our garden and begin construction on the extensions to the Museum, which we foresee  being finished in Spring 2015. After that our fit-out contractors will take their place and fill the Museum with plinths, cases, signs and objects ready for our re-opening, which may take until early 2016.

Don’t worry though, we will be keeping you regularly updated here on the blog, tracking both the progress of the work within the galleries as well as some of the conservation work that goes on in a project of this size.


Discovering the Landscape #8: New Pinterest board

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

The Landscape Institute collections are exciting and visual, as can be seen through the wealth of images we have used in this ‘Discovering the Landscape’ series of blog posts.  Now we have created a new Pinterest board dedicated to the Landscape Institute on MERL’s Pinterest site.

Pinterest is a great way of grouping together images from webpages on a virtual pinboard.  A screenshot of the new Landscape Institute board can be seen above. It is essentially a more visually pleasing way of bookmarking interesting content that you find online, as is discussed by my colleague Adam here.

If you are already on Pinterest then please follow us, or if you are not already signed up it’s very easy to do so – either by email or through your facebook account.

I will continue to add to the board as sorting and cataloguing of the collections continues.  As ever please do contact us on if you have any questions.

How many curators…?

As part of our ‘Shut, but not shutting up!’ social media campaign to stay in touch during MERL’s closure period, this week we’re launching ‘How many curators…?’, a new behind the scenes vlog channel on Youtube.

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator and budding film director/producer/actor/anchor, will be meeting members of staff and volunteers, talking to them about their jobs and getting a closer look at the fascinating and varied collections they work with. Each episode will present an informal and sometimes quirky insight into the different roles carried out by people working with the amazing variety of objects, archives and books in the University’s collections, at the Museum of English Rural Life, the Special Collections, the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Cole Museum and more…

The aim is to dispel the myth that the only people who work in museums are curators!  In fact, out of  50+ people at the University’s Museums and Collections, only 6 have ‘curator’ in their job title! So whether you’re thinking of a career in collections or are fascinated by the inner workings of museums, you’ll discover how many curators (and archivists, librarians, conservators, marketers, visitor service assistants, education officers, programme managers…) it takes to run a successful museums and collections service.  This will be a unique opportunity to follow MERL staff and volunteers throughout the process of transforming the museum, as well as getting to see what staff across the collections at the University get up to.

To see the first episode of ‘How many curators…?’ see below!

Project update: Shut, but not shutting up!

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer, explains that although the museum galleries are now closed for redevelopment, the reading room and gift shop are open, work behind the scenes continues, and a social media campaign is planned to keep the followers up to date with activities and project progress during the closure period.

Although the museum galleries are closed to the public, there will be plenty of activity at MERL and we’ll be using social media to make sure everyone knows we haven’t packed up, locked up and gone off to the Caribbean for a year! We’ll definitely be ‘Shut, but not shutting up!’



It has been fun working with colleagues to plan innovative and exciting ways of maintaining an interesting flow of information and encouraging dialogue with our followers during the closure period. We’ve tried out new platforms, encouraged more staff to get involved, and learnt how to make gifs!

So here’s a taste of what we’ll be sharing…

Collections and conservation staff will be occupied with project work, from removing, packaging and storing artefacts at the start of the project, to working with the designers on detailed plans for the new galleries and then overseeing the refitting stage. We’ll be sharing fascinating insights into this work via project and research posts on this blog and the Sense of Place blog, and plenty of pictures on Instagram!

instagram autumn

As the shop will be staying open throughout the Museum closure, our Visitor Services team will be keen to share news of special offers, the online store, new products and plans for the future via their new hashtag #MERLshopisopen on the MERL Twitter account.

Archives and Library staff will barely notice the closure! The reading room will still be open and the Special Collections Service will operate as usual. Our public programme will be focusing on the Special Collections, with Staircase Hall exhibitions, a seminar series, and even the Rural Reads book club will move to the Staircase Hall and expand its remit to include books inspired by the Special Collections. This week our archives and library staff are getting involved with Explore your Archive week, so follow the #explorearchives on the Special Collections twitter account and on Beckett, books and biscuits, the Special Collections blog.


In addition, Archives and Library staff will be working with the museum designers to integrate archive papers, rare books, film and photographs into the new displays, as well as planning ways of making the collections more accessible online. They’ll be sharing detailed plans as they emerge but in the meantime, as they delve into the collections, you’ll their most interesting discoveries on Pinterest.

MERL Pinterest screen


Perhaps the most novel addition to our portfolio is our new ‘behind the scenes’ vlog channel ‘How many Curators…?’ which we’ll be launching later this week! Focusing on the varied roles of museum and collections staff, the series is aimed at students, and anyone else who’s interested in finding out about what goes on behind the scenes, not just at MERL but at the University’s Ure Museum, Cole Museum and Special Collections. Rob Davies, our Volunteer Coordinator, will be the anchor for these films which will present an informal, light-hearted and occasionally quirky insight into museum roles and activities. For more information, read the blog post and follow us on tumblr.

So follow us and watch this space, as there’s even talk of MERL on Minecraft!

Volunteers’ Voice #16: Young people as volunteers

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator

Our lovely Vintage Night student volunteers

Our lovely Vintage Night student volunteers

As part of the Our Country Lives project we are launching a series of projects to encourage young people (aged 11-25) to volunteer and engage with MERL. The age range is vast, with a wide variety of skills, abilities and interests within this target audience. You may ask: why are we targeting this group in particular? Well, through extensive research we have identified that our only visitors within that age category are usually those who come to study, students who volunteer or visit as part of a school trip. We can certainly continue to provide this educational resource, but we want to broaden our horizons and become more of a destination, not just offering a studious environment but also a place to go for extracurricular activities and leisure.

To prepare ourselves for this I have been researching young people within the museum sector and have come across a rich range of resources, related experiences and friendly colleagues who want to share stories and tips. In October I attended a seminar at the National Portrait Gallery called ‘The Domino Effect’, which heralded the conclusion of a three year project where they have been working with NEETS on photography projects. I have also been talking to colleagues at the ‘Collaborate SE: the South East regional Network of Museums working with young people.’

A series of projects and strategies have been planned, but not too in-depth as we want these projects to be formed by the young people themselves. (We were all young once, but does that mean any of us really know what young people want anymore?) Our plan is to have two forums split by age category. Each one will be supported by a member of staff and will function democratically. Last year we piloted this idea with a student panel who organised our 1951 Vintage Night for Museums at Night, which was a very enjoyable experience and a great success. Members of the forums will have numerous projects they can participate in: from consultation regarding our new galleries to planning events for their peers to attend. For young people who don’t fancy the idea of joining a forum we’re also setting up a youth volunteering programme, which will work around school hours and provide a chance to volunteer across the organisation.

To launch these exciting new projects we’re holding an open afternoon on Takeover Day, Friday 21st November, 4-6pm, at the Museum of English Rural Life. This will be a great opportunity for anyone interested to come along and talk to volunteers and members of staff about the type of opportunities they could get involved in. We hope to see you there! For more information, email

Stereotypes and slaughter: Why are horror films set in the countryside?

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

The countryside is terrifying.

When you’re not being offered as human sacrifice you’re either being forced to knife-fight your own wife and son to the death, getting eaten by the local wildlife or being pushed off a cliff by a psychotic caravaner from Redditch.

Or, at least, this is what the film industry would have you believe. The countryside has often provided fertile ground for all things murderous, horrible and supernatural on the silver screen, playing on the stereotypical urbanite fear of our myth-ridden landscape, where the nearest policeman is a hundred miles away and nobody knows what a cappuccino is.

A man trap in action (MERL/68/95)

A man trap in action (MERL/68/95)

At this time of year there is a predictable crop of Halloween films, but why does the countryside in particular awaken the primeval and the superstitious in us? Here at MERL we’re not short of sinister objects and ghosts of the past – for instance, the Grim Reaper would feel at home in our collection of scythes; our numerous animal (and human) traps have seen countless final squeaks and gasps; smocks and shoes of the long-dead hang hang quietly upstairs; we have slaughter hooks, carcass hangers, guns and docking knives. Even our sickles have seen thousands of tiny deaths in fields of wheat. Our collection reflects how the countryside revolves around death as much as it does around life, and much of the rural economy exploits the life cycle of animals and crops to provide food and clothing for us all.

Apart from this proximity to the life-cycle, another reason could be the pagan heritage of our Celtic fringes which still lingers in both remote communities (The Wicker Man) but also in national traditions (i.e. May Day). There are the practical reasons, such as how it tends to be darker and sparsely populated. In fact there is a unique feeling of isolation in the countryside, keenly felt in a nation where c.90% of people live in cities. Another element is how myth and legend are often rooted in our rural past, be it the derivation of Jack o’ Lanterns from Somerset will o’ the wisps, werewolves in the woods, giants in the mountains or pixies at the bottom of your garden. And of course, there is ‘the other’ – the classic stereotype of people referred to in TV’s League of Gentleman as ‘locals’, who, as you step into a candlelit country pub, turn to stare at you as the needle scratches off a record. It does not matter that these ideas are outdated or untrue, they remain stereotypes to be exploited.

In 'An American Werewolf in London', an American tourist becomes infected by a werewolf in the Yorkshire countryside.

In ‘An American Werewolf in London’, an American tourist becomes infected by a werewolf in the Yorkshire countryside.

Whatever the inspiration for a rural horror film, however, there is usually one common theme: that the stranger, usually an urbanite, ends up dead. Sometimes they don’t deserve it and sometimes they do, but often their death is due to offending the morals or way of life of a rural community (or sometimes vice versa, as in Straw Dogs). This is particularly the truth in newer films such as Sightseers, which exploits this idea of moral killing which lays at the heart of most modern horror films. In place of traditional myth and legend, of hubris and nemesis, we now have the moralising horror movie where protagonists are struck down for their sins. The countryside is seen in some movies as a place where a more enduring idea of right and wrong persists, whether it takes the form of the pagan community of The Wicker Man or a community desperately trying the preserve an imagined way of life, such as in Hot Fuzz.

Scythes were used for harvesting and mowing rather than reaping souls (MERL/68/441)

Scythes were used for harvesting and mowing rather than reaping souls (MERL/68/441)

I would, however, argue that British rural horror films are almost unique; the far more popular and populous American genre is often based on hillbilly brutality, Bigfoot and other myths. The British genre, however, can draw on centuries of rural life, myth and legend that stretch back to the medieval period. At the root of it all, I think, is the idea of the countryside being where you can get ‘back to nature’ or, to put it another way, to return to the savage state of nature. Put on a layer of centuries-old stereotypes, regional rivalry and an increasing disconnect between city and country and we have our modern fear of fields and ‘locals’. Never mind how they bear little relation to reality.

Edward and Tubbs in 'The League of Gentleman' represent an extreme end of a rural stereotype.

Edward and Tubbs in ‘The League of Gentleman’ represent an extreme end of a rural stereotype.

Weekly What’s on: Sat 25 to Fri 31 Oct


Archives and texts seminarsArchives and texts seminar series:
Travels in a publisher’s archive: John Murray and nineteenth-century travel publishing
Dr Innes M. Keighren (Geography, Royal Holloway) 
Monday 27 October 
Conference room, Museum of English Rural Life*

For details of this seminar, read the latest post on the ‘Archives and Texts’ blog


A new extension will feature the chance to have your say in current issues, marvel at objects showcasing our technological ingenuity and witness our 1951 Festival of Britain wall hanging. Artist’s Impression (Fabrice Bourrelly/3DW).Our Country Lives display

Saturday 25th to Friday 31st October (Closed Monday 27th)
Normal opening times
Don’t miss the last chance to visit MERL before we close for redevelopment! See a display of plans and pictures of our new galleries, tell us what you’d like to see in the new Museum and garden, and try our image key words activity.


Half term family fun!
Saturday 25th to Friday 31st October (Closed Monday 27th)
Normal opening times


pumpkin1Pumpkin hunt!

Follow a free pumpkin hunt and receive a chocolate prize!





Colouring in activity‘Chocolate box’ make and take

Make and decorate a chocolate box in our free make and take activity.





PrintThe Our Country Lives Big Draw

Thursday 30th October
10.00am-11.00am, 11.30am-12.30pm, 1.30pm-2.30pm and 3.00pm-4.00pm

Location*: The Print Studio and room G10, Art Building L04 on the London Road Campus.
*Park and meet at MERL reception and we will walk to The Print Studio together.
£3 per child
Booking required
Suitable for children aged 7+.

Work with University of Reading art students to help make beautiful artwork to decorate hoardings which will be used whilst MERL is closed redevelopment work to take place. During this session, attendees will design large format art inspired by the MERL’s collections using mixed media and the Print studio’s fantastic printing presses.


Rural reads library booksRural reads plus

Thursday 30th October
5.30-7pm, free, drop-in
This month we’ll be discussing The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, the first book inspired by the University’s Special Collections. Read more about why Rural Reads is expanding it’s remit on the website




greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until October 31st
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ blog post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the Our Country Lives project.

Discovering the Landscape #7: Peter Shepheard

This month Peter Shepheard is the subject of our continuing series of blog posts about MERL’s acquisition of the archive and library of the Landscape Institute. Written by Claire Wooldridge, Landscape Institute Library Officer

Illustration by Shepheard, from Barclay-Smith, Woodland Birds (King Penguin no. 74, 1955)

Illustration by Shepheard, from Barclay-Smith, Woodland Birds (King Penguin no. 74, 1955)


Sir Peter Shepheard (1913-2002) was an influential architect and landscape architect.  After training at the Liverpool School of Architecture, Shepheard moved to London in 1937.  During WW2, Shepheard served first at the propellant planning department at the Ministry of Supply, on the construction of Royal Ordnance factories.  In 1943 he joined Abercrombie’s staff to work on the Greater London Plan for post-war regeneration and growth in the capital.  Shepheard remained at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning working on early prototypes for the new towns.  He shared a room with Hugh Casson, another significant figure in the field of architecture and design.


Shepheard, Modern Gardens (Architectural Press, 1953)

Shepheard, Modern Gardens (Architectural Press, 1953)

Barclay-Smith, (illus by Shepheard), A Book of Ducks (King Penguin no. 195158,

Barclay-Smith, (illus by Shepheard), A Book of Ducks (King Penguin no. 58, 1951)














In 1948 Shepheard formed a partnership with Derek Bridgwater and with the addition of Gabriel Espstein and Peter Hunter formed the practice of Shepheard, Epstein and Hunter where he stayed until his retirement in 1989.  Shepheard held high profile positions in professional architectural bodies: serving as president of the Architectural Association, president of the Landscape Institute from 1965-1966 and from 1969-1971 president of RIBA.  He was appointed CBE in 1972 and knighted in 1980. In 2000 he received the Landscape Institute Gold Medal.

Shepheard had a real talent for drawing, illustrating two books on ducks and woodland birds in the King Penguin series.

Nairn, Counter-Attack Against Subtopia (Architectural Press, 1957)

Nairn, Counter-Attack Against Subtopia (Architectural Press, 1957)

Interestingly, these titles are both held in the Printing Collection of the University of Reading’s Special Collections, providing a fascinating link between our MERL and Special Collections.  Shepheard’s beautifully detailed plates from Woodland Birds and the attractive cover of A Book of Ducks can be seen above.

Within our collections we have several books that relate to Shepheard, be they written by him (Modern Gardens, 1953), featuring essays written by him (Counter-attacks against Subtopia, 1957) or about him (Peter Shepheard, (Annabel Downs, ed.), 2003).

The Peter Shepheard archive (currently uncatalogued) contains drawings, photographs, project files, correspondence, personal papers and drawings of nudes and birds.

For more information see:

Archival collection at MERL: AR SHE (currently uncatalogued)

Downs, Annabel (ed.), Peter Shepheard (LDT Monographs no. 4), 2004: MERL LIBRARY–2860-SHE/PET

Nairn, Ian, Counter-attack against subtopia, 1957: MERL LIBRARY OVERSIZE–2870-NAI

Shepheard, Peter, Modern Gardens, 1953: MERL LIBRARY OVERSIZE–4756-SHE


Rural Reads review #8: ‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Rob Davies reviews the latest rural read.

clayFor the September meeting, we read Clay by debut author Melissa Harrison. Clay is an unusual novel for Rural Reads because it is set firmly in a city; it is, however, about how people within an urban environment interact with the green spaces available to them. This is a theme we as a group find particularly fascinating, partly because of where we all live, but also because of MERL’s urban location in Reading.

Clay is driven by a loose plot about a group of people who in some way or form have a relationship with a green common within a housing estate. The characters all have varying degrees of interaction and relationships with one another; each of them is missing something from their lives and all are craving friendship and companionship. These characters include a young boy from a disrupted home, an elderly widow, her daughter and her granddaughter, and an Eastern European immigrant who lost his farm and now works in England. Each of these characters has a relationship with the Common, which for each of them is variably a place of peace, adventure, memory and intrigue.
Yet it wasn’t so much the plot that captured our attention as the wonderful nature writing with which Harrison filled the pages.

“Over by the oaks the elegant, sandy feathers of tall oat grass floated above the finer, reddish inflorescence of the common bent below, like the two lengths of pelt on a cat.”

Harrison interweaves the main plot with these beautiful descriptions that add a whole new depth to the novel; this is what really captured our imaginations and also why we consider Clay to be a ‘rural read’!

My first question to the group was “did you enjoy Clay?” and I was answered with a unanimous yes. We all enjoyed the book as a whole, and it was a light read that we were easily absorbed by. We all really enjoyed the way Melissa Harrison wrote about nature, and I would recommend reading her blog Tales of the City where she writes about the diversity of nature found in urban environments.

The new home of our bookclub

The new home of our bookclub

For October 30th we’re reading Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, which marks a change in our reading remit. When the Museum closes at the end of October for work on the Our Country Lives redevelopment to take place, Rural Reads will move to the beautiful Staircase Hall in the Victorian part of our building. Our remit will expand to encompass the varied and vast Special Collections held by the University of Reading. Alongside books themed around the countryside, we will be taking inspiration from the libraries and archives. The depth of these collections means we’re all very excited about where this new reading adventure will lead!



Dog Carts: Travel in style

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

In my mind the idea of a dog cart is fairly funny. The idea of, say, a Pug or a French Bulldog pulling along bespoke, miniature carts is absurd, endearing and yet a little unsettling, like performing animals at the zoo.

They are also some of my favourite objects at MERL. Nothing else has confronted me so immediately with its oddity: when did we use dogs as draught animals? Why was that okay? Who made these carts, and who used them?


Vincent de Vos – The Dog Cart – Williamson art gallery and museum

It is the ethical issues, however, that I enjoy the most. Why is it one rule for one animal and a different one for another? Docking dog tails is restricted or banned in most countries, but it’s fine for sheep. Is it hypocritical to think of dog carts as cruelty to animals when we still use horses and oxen to pull carts?

 L.M. Frobisher - Belgian Dog Cart - Bushley Museum and Art Gallery

L.M. Frobisher – Belgian Dog Cart – Bushley Museum and Art Gallery

The Victorians were the first to take issue with it, originally banning it in 1839 through the Metropolitan Police Act, which forbade the use of dog carts within fifteen miles of Charing Cross. As well as being thought of as cruel to animals it was thought that overworked dogs were more susceptible to rabies, cases of which did indeed drop by 1841. It was also in that year that dog-carts were banned across the United Kingdom. It did not pass unopposed, although most arguments against it were concerned with the effect it would have on small traders, who used dog carts as a cheaper way of transporting goods. Indeed, some of the opposition ridiculed the ‘trivial’ bill, saying that if small animals should not draw carts then Shetland ponies should also be banned. (And considering that 1841 was the same year in which the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed, they may have had a point.)



The Act for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals has since been updated without mention of using dogs for draught purposes so I’m not sure if it even is illegal anymore. Perhaps it’s simply because it would be such a rare occurrence for someone in the modern age to construct a cart and conscript a canine that it is pointless to legislate against.

A google, however, reveals that dog carts are still sold in the USA. So if you want to be driven around by a dog for some reason, try there. Just don’t use ours.


MERL/63/101 – This one is actually French, so it’s a little strange that we have it..