World Hunger Day: Where does MERL fit in?

Written by Science Engagement Officer, Robyn Hopcroft.

Saturday, 28 May is World Hunger Day. It’s a chance to consider and act to create sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. MERL is a museum “dedicated to the spirit of the English countryside and its people”. So what do we care about world hunger?

Well, we care about farming, which means we are interested in food production and we want to talk about where that food goes and how local food chains figure in concerns about global food security. So, for instance, we are interested when we hear that 15 million  tonnes  of  food  and  drink  was  wasted in  the UK food chain in 2013 [pdf] and yet some 793 million people around the world are undernourished.

Learning from the past

“But your collections are so old!” I hear you say, “What relevance do they have to our lives now and in the future? How do they relate to what is going in other parts of the world?” Well I’m glad you asked! Our historical collections provide an excellent opportunity to learn from the past and think about what worked, what didn’t work, and make comparisons to how we do things today. As an academic museum, our collections are important tools for teaching and research, which can feed into future policy and practices.

Image of Hugh Sinclair at work.

Hugh Sinclair at work.

This World Hunger Day the focus is on nutrition, and at MERL we hold the Hugh Sinclair archive – a collection that contains an important body of nutritional data. Hugh Macdonald Sinclair (1910-1990) was a pioneer in the field of human nutrition research, and is known for his bold self-experimentation with the Eskimo diet. (He survived on a diet of seal and fish for 100 days.) But it’s Sinclair’s 1940s work on the Oxford Nutrition Survey (ONS) that has relevance to the scientific study of malnutrition.

The ONS examined the diets of a wide range of people including pregnant women, students and manual workers. The resulting data was a useful tool to help ensure that rationing levels were adequate for the population. Survey work was also conducted with malnourished people in the British occupied areas of Germany and The Netherlands after World War II. So here we are at MERL, holding a valuable resource that gives us a window into the past, and that could also be used to help us understand and combat malnutrition today.

Getting hands-on with food and nutrition

To complement our collections, we will also be out and about running some participatory activities. I’ve signed up as an ambassador for The Crunch – a Wellcome Trust initiative that aims to inspire everyone to consider the connections between our food, our health and our planet, so that we can all help create the recipe for a happier, healthier future. I can’t wait to get chatting to people about food and nutrition and some of the obstacles we face to ensure that we can feed a growing population.

The Crunch strapline with a link to The Crunch website.Our first outing using The Crunch resources will be at the University of Reading’s ‘Big Band Lunch’ on Sunday, 5 June. We want to encourage visitors to play some traditional fete games, but also to try something new with food. Perhaps have a taste of some cricket-flour brownies Wellcome Trust endorsement with a link to the Wellcome Trust website.and consider the pressing need to find sustainable protein sources? Or try to feed a city with sustainable and healthy food by playing the Hungry City game?

Hope you can make it!

Discovering the Landscape: Treasures Exhibition at the University Library

We’re delighted that this exhibition can now be seen at the University Library:

Discovering the Landscape: treasures from the collections of the Landscape Institute

Peter Shepheard sketchbook on display in 'Discovering the Landscape' exhibition at the University Library

Peter Shepheard sketchbook on display in ‘Discovering the Landscape’ exhibition at the University Library

Where? University Library Foyer, Whiteknights campus

When? April – June 2016  (during opening hours)

What? This display will showcase a selection of important archive materials and books from the Landscape Institute collections, including rare books dating from sixteenth century to the present day. See stunning sketch books, fascinating photographs and beautifully illustrated book plates and fold out plans.   

How much? Free!

We’re very pleased to report that this exhibition has gone on tour to the University Library.

So what are you waiting for?  Visit the exhibition and take this special opportunity to explore our Landscape Institute collections with us.

Plate from 'The art and practice of landscape gardening', by Henry Ernest Milner - now on display in 'Discovering the Landscape' exhibition at the University Library

Plate from ‘The art and practice of landscape gardening’, by Henry Ernest Milner – now on display in ‘Discovering the Landscape’ exhibition at the University Library

As ever contact us on merl@reading.ac.uk for further information or click here.

Written by Project Librarian: Claire Wooldridge

Chalk or Cheese? Winner announced!

The votes are in, the people have spoken and the wall hanging chosen for display in the new Museum of English Rural Life is…Kent!

Kent single

Over the past month we asked you to vote between our Kent and Cheshire wall hangings, two of a series of seven made by the artist Michael O’Connell for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The campaign culminated in our Museums at Night event, Chalk or Cheese?, where visitors enjoyed each region’s beer and cheese, advocates for both hangings battled it out in a political hustings and everyone had to chance to participate in a secret ballot.

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The end-vote was incredibly close; in the end, Kent only won by six votes.

If you’re wondering why the choice is only between two wall hangings, the reasons are actually quite simple (the others depict Rutlandshire, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire and The Fens).

Firstly, we have never had the space or right conditions to display any of these hangings before, so they’ve lain in our Object Store for decades. The cost of conserving each hanging for public display was significant and involved considerable work on the part of qualified conservator Kate Gill. We could not have done this without the funding the Heritage Lottery Fund and the University provided. She removed creases in the fabric, repaired damage, and cleaned and reshaped each of them ready for display.

Kate Gill conserving the wall hangings.

Kate Gill conserving the wall hangings.

It’s actually quite lucky that the wall hangings have not been on display in so long, as it means their colours are fresh and vibrant. To keep the colours that way we have to avoid exposing them to too much light, so each wall hanging will only be displayed for five years at a time. One wall hanging will be fully displayed while the other will be rolled and stored at the back of the case, ready to be swapped around in five year’s time.

This of course means that the Cheshire wall hanging will go on display in 2021. We’d love to be able to display them all at the same time, but at a mammoth 7 x 3.5 metres each, we simply cannot afford to case them all (and we don’t have the space!). The case we have bought is bespoke, and has been carefully designed specifically for our wall hangings.

An artist's impression of what the new gallery may look like.

An artist’s impression of what the new gallery may look like.

Of course, conservation and environmental factors were less of a concern to our predecessors when they first acquired the hangings back in 1952. They took them immediately to an agricultural show and hung them in the back of a tent in the middle of a field. How times (and costs) have changed!

Thank you to everyone who voted in this campaign, and we look forward to inviting you to see the wall hanging on display this October!

Interview with Art Collections Officer, Part 1

Volunteer, Whitney continues her series of interviews with members of staff with a chat with Jacqueline Winston-Silk, Art Collections Officer, about her role.

Can you give me a little background of the work you do here at MERL?

I am based at the Museum and employed by the University of Reading. I manage the University’s Art Collections as a whole and I am also responsible for artworks that are held at MERL and within Special Collections.

What are your main responsibilities?

Managing and advocating for the University’s Art Collections. Developing the collections and making artworks accessible and relevant to students, academics and the public. I also have to think strategically in terms of exploiting the Art Collections to provide value and research potential for the University.

Historically, no one has held the single responsibility for the Art Collections. Because of this I feel the collections have not been used to their full potential. The majority of our students and visitors may not be aware of the extent of the art collections because we do not currently have an online collections database to search – like there is for other University of Reading collections. Therefore, to address the identity and visibility of the Art Collections we are embarking on a collections audit. Our aim is to research, digitise and catalogue the entire collection. Ultimately, it is a process of establishing what we have and where it is! As we do this, we can increase the ways our audiences gain knowledge and enjoyment from the collections – whether within teaching and learning, or through programmes of displays and events.

 

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At the moment I’m involved in numerous projects. Aside from the retrospective cataloguing and research project, I’m delivering an events programme called Art Collections in Conversation; I’m working collaboratively to produce a Ladybird Gallery as part of the Museum’s redevelopment, and I’m supporting an exchange programme where the University is hosting a number of artists in residence. In partnership with the Collections Officer I support loans administration and registrar work for the museum. We have an active social media presence so I contribute content for this; I’m also responsible for writing and supporting funding bids, and sorting out tricky things like copyright permissions. I also support the development of 2 young volunteers.

It’s a hugely varied job which I love!

What is your academic background?

Ten years ago I completed a BA (Hons) in Photographic Arts and about 4 years ago I did an MA in Museum Studies.

Whitney: So your course gave you some knowledge for what you are doing now.

Jacqui: Yes, but I don’t think you necessarily need a Master’s degree to work in a Museum. I feel that having a postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or a cultural heritage subject demonstrates commitment to your future profession, and it taught me a lot about museums. But at the same time there are a number of people that might not have the opportunity to do a Master’s programme. Some people choose internships and vocational placements and enter their museum career completely differently, still achieving the same thing. Now that I’m in this position, I often feel that practical skills can be more valuable.

You studied Photographic Arts as a BA. Has art always been a passion of yours?

Photography has always been something I’ve been interested in. It’s just something I’ve always loved. Once I did my BA I became more aware of the role of the museums and galleries. Material culture, cultural heritage and history are passions.

As an Art Collections Officer are you responsible for collecting Art pieces at all?

We have an acquisitions policy that governs when we acquire an artwork or object. We’re not actively collecting art because we’ve got quite a lot already! It’s about understanding, researching and using the collections that we have. However, there will always be opportunities that arise to purchase something new, or to receive a gift or donation. For example, I was recently involved in acquiring some works for the Museum.

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Do you work solely as an Art Collections Officer or do you liaise with other departments and work with other colleagues at MERL?

I get asked to do lots of different things by different people. Rob, the Volunteer Coordinator or Philippa, the Audience Development Manager might approach me and say, “We’re doing this session, what collections do you recommend we use?” or “Can you come in and give a talk?” I am also working with the team at MERL, for example with Caroline the Deputy Archivist and with Ollie the Assistant Curator, to curate a display of artwork within our new Ladybird Gallery. This is part of the wider Our Country Lives redevelopment. Museum work often necessitates collaborative working and relying on curatorial expertise of your colleagues.

reproduced courtesy of GetReading

Reproduced courtesy of Get Reading

Do you think that has helped you understand the vision of what you need to accomplish and understand the bigger picture?

Yes, there’s definitely a bigger picture. The students are central to my role and giving them greater access to the resources that we have is the bigger picture which trickles down into much smaller ventures, whether it be just giving a seminar or working with Director of Museum Studies, Dr Rhi Smith, on a pop-up display.

How has your experience been at MERL? Is it different to any other institution you have worked in before?

Because of the museum’s extensive and ambitious redevelopment project, it has been an excellent time to join the team. I started at MERL in September 2015. Before that I was at Camberwell College of Arts, and prior to that I was at the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture. For the past couple of years I have been working with University collections, so I am used to the emphasis on the student, in addition to the traditional museum audience.

What are the rewarding aspects to your job?

I feel privileged to have access to different types of objects, collections and archives and I expect that’s something that all Curators or Collection Managers feel, because that’s probably what gives us our kicks!

How about challenging parts?

When you’re working for a University, the world of academia can sometimes be a little intimidating. You’re often working with a lot of very experienced people. On the plus side, it means you’re working with experts in the field so you’ve got an amazing resource.

How do you think digital technology might change your role or job description in the next coming years?

I think it will definitely change some of the ways that we work and will present new opportunities. The University’s Ure Museum is digitally scanning and printing objects in their collections. Digital platforms present a huge opportunity to engage people with the art collections, at a time when the University doesn’t have a traditional gallery space. It enables us to think imaginatively about how we present the collections online. Digital tools can also aid collections management work, although we don’t currently use them, there are smart phone devices which can assist with tracking object relocations. There are lots of ways that new technologies will change, challenge and enhance the way museums work.

Whitney: So do you think galleries will become much more visual and visible?

Jacqui: Yes. It definitely presents new opportunities. It may mean in the future that you have Curators that specialise in digital technologies and engagement. But you also can’t deny the fact that you are still going to have a physical, historic collection to look after.

Whitney: Is that daunting to think about?

Jacqui: As a bit of a traditionalist and an advocate of analogue technologies and approaches, I find it daunting that in the future a greater emphasis could be placed on the digital rather than the physical.

Whitney and Jacqui continue their fascinating conversation next week!

Wellcome news! MERL has rural life down to a science

Our new Science Engagement Officer, Robyn Hopcroft, provides an update on the Wellcome Trust funded project: ‘Our Country Lives: Nutrition, Health and Rural England’.

What is the relationship between rural life and science? In my role at MERL I’ll be investigating this question and finding new ways to work together with our visitors to explore three key areas:

  • Food production and human nutrition
  • Livestock management and animal health
  • Rural health and medicine
The university's Special Collections Service holds an archive of Ladybird books and artwork, including many beautiful illustrations relating to science and agriculture. This is an illustration of Louis Pasteur in his laboratory from the book 'The Story of Medicine'. Authored by Edmund Hunter and Illustrated by Robert Ayton. Copyright Ladybird Books Ltd 1972.

The university’s Special Collections Service holds an archive of Ladybird books and artwork, including many beautiful illustrations relating to science and agriculture. Louis Pasteur in his laboratory from ‘The Story of Medicine’ (Author: Edmund Hunter, Illustrator: Robert Ayton) © Ladybird Books Ltd 1972.

Although I’ve only been with MERL for a few weeks, it’s already clear to me that this is the perfect place for delivery of an exciting project centred on these themes.  The Museum comprises a driven team who are keen to rise to the challenge and get people thinking about big topics like food security, sustainable agriculture and the essential functions that rural life serves in contemporary society. We hold rich collections and stories that can act as conversation starters around these kinds of issues and maintain close connections with the University research community, who offer a glimpse into the future of the countryside by sharing the latest science news.

Milking the cows from 'Fun at the Farm'. Authored by William Murray and Illustrated by Harry Wingfield. Copyright Ladybird Books Ltd 1965.

Milking the cows from ‘Fun at the Farm’ (Author: William Murray, Illustrator: Harry Wingfield). © Ladybird Books Ltd 1965.

While loads of work has already been done to incorporate scientific themes into the redevelopment of the galleries, we want to go even bigger and better. Now that I’ve started my job as the Museum’s Science Engagement Officer, the project enters a new phase. I’m looking at additional programming to get people thinking and talking about the science behind life in the countryside. To start with, I’ll be trialling some hands-on activities that relate to food and nutrition. We’re also in the very early stages of planning an artist residency, which will provide a platform for an artistic interpretation of issues relating to livestock management and animal health.

As we’re eager to get people talking online, we will be making some short films and injecting some science into our social media accounts.

This is a wonderful opportunity to work across disciplines and get stuck into finding interesting ways to connect people, science and our collections.

It’s an ambitious project, I’ll admit.  But so far so good.  Wish us luck!

 

We’ll be keeping you up to date with project developments in a ‘Wellcome news!’ series of posts here on the blog.

 

Countryside Forum: gathering stories

In her latest Activity Plan update, Phillippa Heath (Audience Development Project Manager), describes the fascinating conversations the team have been having (and are set to have) with farmers and individuals with different connections to the countryside, across the UK.

One of our ambitions for the Museum of English Rural Life’s redevelopment is to draw out and bring to the fore the fascinating stories from our objects and collections. Some of these stories might highlight how an object worked or how it was made, but many will hint at the people behind the objects, enabling us all to understand more about their lives. These stories will be appearing throughout the museum galleries as part of our new interpretation and visitors will have the opportunity to learn about a range of individuals: from historic figures represented in our collections (such as rural mid-wife Jean Young) to people widely associated with aspects of rural life today (such as Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis).

As part of this work, we are also keen to speak to as many individuals as possible who work or have associations with the countryside so that their stories too can be represented. Over the course of the last year, the Activity Plan team have been meeting with a number of individuals from across our local area of Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire area talking to them about their practices and experiences.

CF - William Cumber

Livestock farmer William Cumber of Manor Farm, Abingdon

Since the beginning of this year, however, their reach has spread to include individuals from a further afield to ensure different localities as well as different viewpoints are represented in the stories which we will be sharing. In February MERL was ‘On Tour’ in Cheshire, Shropshire and Lincolnshire with staff being privileged to speak to a range of people with rural connections.

CF - MERL staff on the road

MERL Activity Plan staff on the road

Some of these individuals were farmers. Phillip Winward, Shropshire Dairy Farmer with a small herd of sixty cows, talked about how he and his fellow local dairy farmers are overcoming the pressures currently experienced by their industry through the formation of an informal advisory group. He described how the group acts as a support and sharing network in which members compare approaches to declining milk prices and how they can increase efficiency and sustainability on their farms.

Phillip Winward, Shropshire Dairy Farmer

Phillip Winward, Shropshire Dairy Farmer

Founder of the British Quinoa Company, Stephen Jones, although from a farming background, was at the early stages of farming an arable crop not previously farmed in the UK – quinoa. He spoke about the fascinating story behind the development of his business from his early crop research trialling to now being in the position where he is managing a thriving national business working with a diverse range of growers and suppliers.

Stephen Jones founder of the British Quinoa Company with his new product sample, quinoa muesli

Stephen Jones founder of the British Quinoa Company with his new product sample, quinoa muesli

Two of our interviewees were retired farmers. James and Joyce Greenfield are both Lincolnshire born and bred and still live in their farmhouse though no longer have the responsibility for farming the land. They talked to us about their fascinating personal histories in pastoral farming, shared some wonderful anecdotes from their farming lives and treated us to a wealth of knowledge and information. Mr Greenfield, an avid collector of farm machinery and rural heritage, also gave us a tour of his fascinating collection many items which were similar to the ones that we have at MERL.

James Greenfield and his seed fiddle

James Greenfield and his seed fiddle

 

Joyce Greenfield guiding us through her collection of domestic rural items

Joyce Greenfield guiding us through her collection of domestic rural items

Not all of the individuals we interviewed were practising farmers. Polly Gibb is Director of Women in Rural Enterprise (WiRE). Founded in 1988 and based at Harper Adams University, “WiRE is a national business support network; promoting, supporting and developing its membership of rural businesswomen. WiRE offers practical business support which includes access to the 50 WiRE networks across the UK where women in business share expertise and knowledge, build new skills, help boost confidence and support each other to build better businesses”. Polly spoke with great enthusiasm about the diversity of businesses she now has the pleasure of representing across the UK and the importance of her role in liaising with government department in ensuring rural businesswomen’s views are represented.

This week our conversations are set to continue as the Activity Plan team set off on their aptly named ‘Dartmoor Dart’. Visiting individuals across Devon, the team will be regularly updating social media so keep an eye on MERL’s facebook and twitter feeds to find out more about who they are meeting and what stories they are discovering.

Community projects: how to get involved

An update on some of the exciting projects and plans we’re working as part of our redevelopment project – and details of how you can get involved, by Phillippa Heath, Audience Development Manager.

In addition to the Museum’s physical redevelopment we have also been developing our work with our diverse audiences. As well as our existing visitors, we are also keen to involve those who have yet to visit us in the museum’s work (be they from our local communities or from further afield) and are doing so through a programme of activities. This three-year programme of projects and consultation will allow our audiences to get more involved in how MERL represents the countryside and tells the stories that illuminate its collections. This involves establishing links with our local community, to help foster partnerships and ensure that the Museum can become a place where our diverse audiences can come together. To this end, the Activity Plan team have been out and about within Reading and the University, engaging with people and organisations and developing relationships.

Our forums
Our three forums are opportunities for audiences to share their views and opinions on our collections and our activity programmes. We currently have three ongoing forums – The Family Forum (next event June 3rd), the Student Panel (for those aged between 18 and 25) and The Countryside Forum (for those with a relationship with the countryside). These forums take place both on-site at MERL or off-site at community locations.

Student panel ideas

 

Hands on Heritage projects
Working with a number of community partners our Hands on Heritage projects involve people accessing and responding to our collections. Through these projects we have established relationships with a variety of communities including Katesgrove Community Association, Reading Chinese Association, The Greater Reading Nepalese Community Association, Reading Mencap, the Indian Community Centre, the Elizabeth Fry Approved Premises, the Barbados and Friends Association, Reading College, The Rising Sun Arts Centre, Norcot Community Association and the Royal Berkshire Hospital. From object handling, film competitions to exhibition, gardening, music and reminiscence projects, opportunities for working and responding to our collections are wide-ranging.

Student looking at a museum object

Student looking at a museum object

Volunteering opportunities
The Museum’s redevelopment is allowing us to build on our very successful volunteering programme, creating new opportunities for volunteering. Our new Young Volunteers programme has been established for those between the age of 14 and 18. Volunteering tasks can range from a diverse range of activities from cataloguing, marketing, events to gardening.

We are always looking for individuals and groups to be involved. Please contact Phillippa at merlevents@reading.ac.uk or call 0118 378 8660 for more information.

 

Reading Readers – Alex Bowmer

For this month’s Reading Readers blog, PhD student Alex Bowmer gives us an insight into how the MERL archives and object collections are playing a part into his research of livestock health.

Alex examining items in the object store at MERL.

Alex examining items in the object store at MERL.

As a collaborative doctoral awarded PhD candidate, I split my time between King’s College London and here at The Museum of English Rural Life. The aim of my project is to produce a history ‘from below’ of livestock health in Britain, c1920-70. Departing from the usual historical focus on government policy and scientific experts, it aims to understand what disease meant to livestock owners and how they coped with it at a time of rapid transition in pharmaceuticals and farming systems. Traversing fields, fells, farm-yards and factory farms, it will explore farmers’ changing experiences and interpretations of disease. It will also analyse their uses of family remedies, patent medicines, modern pharmaceuticals and animal management for the purposes of disease prevention and control. As part of my research I want to answer how did these coping strategies change over time, and what factors influenced farmers’ decision-making? How did access to medical information alter disease conceptualisation? and How did attitudes to innovation affect pharmaceutical reach?

Medicine chest (Object: 75/150). The box contains various medicines used for treating animals on Royal farms at Windsor, Osborne and Sandringham up to 1937.

Medicine chest (Object: 75/150).
The box contains various medicines used for treating animals on Royal farms at Windsor, Osborne and Sandringham up to 1937.

Over the past few months I have been using both object and archive collections to further develop an understanding of how livestock owners conceptualised disease. On my first visit to MERL I was tasked with investigating and explaining the veterinary medicine collection currently held at the Museum. Some were rather dangerous to say the least! But others have generated new ideas for my research, as many human medicines appeared in a medicine chest given to me for analysis.

Farm Management Survey, FR FMS.

Farm Management Survey, FR FMS.

Over the past few weeks I have been travelling across from London to investigate the Farm Management Survey (FMS). The FMS was financed by the Government through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and undertaken by universities and colleges in England, Wales and Scotland and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland. Beginning in 1936 and renamed in 1986, the survey was voluntary and concerned the collection of financial information of over 500 farms. I have been assessing the veterinary and medical expenditure of these farms to understand whether or not it increased with the advent of new pharmaceutical and chemical medicines made available to livestock owners. Over the coming months I am going to be situated in the reading room, using the vast collections of veterinary and public health texts in MERL’s collection, to begin to write my first chapter understanding how exposure, or lack of, to veterinary knowledge altered how livestock owners tackled concerning disease rates.

Find out more about the MERL collections here. Our reading room is open to the public and you can find more details about accessing the wealth of MERL collections here.

Discovering the Landscape: World Landscape Architecture Month (#WLAM2016)

April is World Landscape Architecture Month (#WLAM2016): an international celebration of landscape architecture.

Read on to find out more about #WLAM2016 and how you can get involved.

Celebrating World Landscape Architecture Month at the University of Reading's  London Road campus, Clock Tower Memorial Garden

Celebrating World Landscape Architecture Month at the University of Reading’s London Road campus, Clock Tower Memorial Garden

Established by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the purpose of World Landscape Architecture Month is to celebrate landscape architecture in our public spaces.

The aim is to highlight how the open, public spaces we inhabit every day are shaped by landscape architecture and the impact this has on how we feel about (and use) these spaces.

WLAM is truly international – people are invited to take part in a social media campaign, by sharing images of designed spaces using the hashtag #WLAM2016. Entries have been received from all over the world via twitter, instagram and Facebook.

ASLA have even created a card which you can print out to feature in your landscape photos.  You can download the card here.

Here in the UK the Landscape Institute is encouraging participation.  Just post or tweet using #WLAM2016.

A Scottish contribution to #WLAM2016 - posted to twitter by Landscape Institute Scotland (@LI_Scotland).

A Scottish contribution to #WLAM2016 – posted to twitter by Landscape Institute Scotland (@LI_Scotland).

A picture of Central Park, New York for #WLAM2016

A picture of Central Park, New York for #WLAM2016

Though we may be the Museum of English Rural Life, as many landscape architects work on projects around the world, our Landscape Institute collections have an international edge.  James Corner, who designed  New York’s much loved High Line and the South Park Plaza of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, delivered a lecture here last year.

Landscape architects that we hold collections for, such as Geoffrey Jellicoe, Peter Shepheard and Brenda Colvin, completed projects in the UK and abroad.  You can find our more about our Landscape Institute collections here.

Take part in and follow #WLAM2016 to celebrate World Landscape Architecture Month.

Claire Wooldridge: Project Librarian (Landscape Institute) 

The ‘Lost Modernist’: Michael O’Connell

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

We’re asking you to help us decide which of our two wall hangings to display in the new Museum. Both were displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain as part of a wider series exploring the British countryside, and have not been on public display for over 60 years.

The two wall hangings which will be displayed in the new MERL (© O'Connell estate).

The two wall hangings which will be displayed in the new MERL (© O’Connell estate).

They were designed and made by the artist Michael O’Connell (1898-1976). Described as the ‘Lost Modernist’, he was a textile artist whose style and colour typify the 1950s and 1960s. At the time he was considered stylishly bold, brash and modern, but his work is still relatively unknown.

Michael O'Connell while in Australia.

Michael O’Connell while in Australia.

Artistically, O’Connell found his feet in Melbourne, Australia, where he honed his craft skills by building his own house in 1923, something he was forced into after his previous home (a tent) was condemned by a health inspector. His romantic lifestyle on the outskirts of Melbourne society, often journeying into the Australian bush to paint and draw, was a far cry from his upbringing in Dalton, Cumbria. His previous aim was to study Agriculture, but his artistic talents were never in question: when held as a prisoner of war in the First World War, one of his guards complimented his work and encouraged him to pursue a career in it.

It was also in Australia where O’Connell hit upon various pioneering methods of dying fabric with his wife, Ella Moody, both of whom were prominent in the Australian Arts & Craft Society. They returned to England in 1937 and developed a close working relationship with Heal’s of London, who proved instrumental after the Second World War in supplying fabric for the Festival of Britain wall hangings.

Michael O'Connell overseeing work on the Festival of Britain wall hanging.

Michael O’Connell overseeing work on the Festival of Britain wall hanging.

O’Connell’s commission required wall hangings to decorate the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, held in May-September 1951. For the hangings themselves, O’Connell had to reflect the versatility and variety of farming in Great Britain, and so he took a tour of the nation, translating what he saw and experienced into his art. The result are seven hangings covering most of Great Britain, representing the distinctive character of our regions and providing an artistic snapshot of the state of British farming in the early 1950s.

After the Festival of Britain the popularity of Michael’s work increased and he received commissions to create murals for public buildings, restaurants, factory canteens and showrooms. His work was exhibited in New York, Melbourne and London. In the 1960s, he began to travel widely and to teach his techniques in art schools. He also worked with architects, producing murals for universities and churches.

In 1970, a devastating fire destroyed his workshop, most of his notebooks and records, and badly damaged his adjoining house. With the help of students and friends the property was rebuilt, but in the following years his eyesight began to fail. In 1976, he was found dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

The V&A Museum also holds multiple pieces by O'Connell.

The V&A Museum also holds multiple pieces by O’Connell.

His work lives on in museum collections in Australia and the UK. While the MERL holds the Festival of Britain wall hangings, the V&A museum also has a large collection of his early work.

Have you voted on which wall hanging to display yet?