Volunteers’ Voice: Work Placement – Daisy

Daisy tells us about her work placement at MERL and the benefits of volunteering after university. 

The question of what to do with my life after I graduate has been particularly pertinent this week as, on Tuesday, I received the results of my history degree. I got a first, in case you were wondering. Even if you weren’t wondering, I am very pleased to be able to tell you that! Nonetheless, from all the many horror stories I’ve heard, the real world of jobs and careers is a scary place at the moment! So I decided that during my final few weeks in Reading, after the post-exam celebrations calmed down, I would do some work experience that would (hopefully!) help me decide what I want to do in the future.

Daisy researching for the MERL Players

Daisy researching for the MERL Players

As a history student, the Museums and Heritage sector is an obvious one. I’m fascinated by everything and anything to do with the past and I’ll never turn down the opportunity to work in a beautiful historic building! MERL definitely delivered on both counts. Although the museum itself was closed I could still enjoy the splendour of the Palmer’s entrance hall and got a behind the scenes look at the archives and art collections.

During my week’s work placement I tried out a number of different roles at MERL. I worked on the front desk, welcoming visitors and doing stock checks of the museum shop. I did some research for the MERL Players’ upcoming production (which will look at the lives of different rural residents). My favourite story was of a Land Girl who was a tractor expert but who sometimes found it hard to make the 7.30am start after a night of dancing! I staged a takeover of the MERL volunteer twitter feed, updating followers on what I was up to and giving a behind the scenes insight of MERL and Special Collections. Finally, I transcribed some oral histories of British farming. I enjoyed every role and it was lovely to be able to try out lots of different things. From what colleagues have told me, that’s the joy of a smaller museum – you can mix and match different tasks that interest you and can always find something useful to do! There is something lovely about the atmosphere of a museum, too. While in the office I’ve been shown, and vigorously encouraged to try, hand creams made from Victorian recipes! In the staff room I’ve been part of National Cream Tea day (i.e. eating lots of scones) and have drunk a ridiculous amount of tea!

A snap from Daisy's archive and library tour

A snap from Daisy’s archive and library tour

My week at MERL has given me an insight into the world of museums and heritage and, I can confirm, I definitely still want to work in this field! Personally, my dream museum job would be in marketing or PR because I really enjoyed having the opportunity to show MERL off in its best light and thinking of innovative and interesting ways to engage people. However, what MERL has taught me is that I could enjoy almost any role in a museum environment. As long as the people are fun, the tea is flowing and the nerdy history discussions are never far away, I’m happy!

 

 

Discovering the Landscape: Dublin of the Future (1922)

Plan of Dublin from Abercrombie's 1922 'Dublin of the future'

Plan of Dublin from Abercrombie’s 1922 ‘Dublin of the future’

This post highlights Dublin of the future: new town plan by Patrick Abercrombie, Sydney Kelly and Arthur Kelly (University of Liverpool Press, 1922) – a title from our MERL Library Landscape Institute collections with intriguing context and provenance.

Patrick Abercrombie (1879-1957) was a town planner active in the interwar period.  He played a leading role in planning for the redevelopment of a number of urban areas, such as London and Plymouth.  Abercrombie retained a love of traditional landscapes and historic towns.  His 1926 article ‘The preservation of rural England‘ published in the Town Planning Review led to the foundation of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE – of which we hold an archival collection.

Plan of Dublin from Abercrombie's 1922 'Dublin of the future'

Plan of Dublin from Abercrombie’s 1922 ‘Dublin of the future’

Plan of Dublin from Abercrombie's 1922 'Dublin of the future'

Plan of Dublin from Abercrombie’s 1922 ‘Dublin of the future’

The foreword of Dublin of the future gives us an impression of the impact contemporary events were having on the day to day life of the time.  The Civics Institute of Ireland launched a competition in 1914 to encourage plans for a ‘greater Dublin’, to stimulate innovative ideas for how the city might be developed and address its housing shortage.  The competition was won by Abercrombie, Sydney and Kelly.  The outbreak of World War I in 1914 marked the beginning of several turbulent years for the city.  In 1922, Abercrombie returned to his plans for Dublin:

The members of the Institute feel that with the recent change in National circumstances a new epoch has begun, and that the present is a most opportune time to arouse the interest of the Citizens, hence it is that the design and report prepared… in the year 1916, now appears.

T. W. Sharp signature on our copy of 'Dublin of the future'

T. W. Sharp signature on our copy of ‘Dublin of the future’

Interestingly, the copy of Dublin for the future we received from the Landscape Institute has been inscribed with the signature ‘T. W. Sharp’ on the front endpaper (left).

It seems a fair assumption that this signature belongs to Thomas (Wilfred) Sharp (1901-1978).

Thomas Sharp was a town planner and writer, who we can imagine was was inspired by Abercrombie’s work.  Sharp shared Abercrombie’s enthusiasm for the landscape and its protection (he was President of the Landscape Institute, 1949-1951).  Coming into his own as a town planner following World War II (working on towns such as Oxford, Exeter and Salisbury) that this is likely to be Sharp’s copy of Dublin is a very rewarding aspect of the provenance of the book.

Upon first opening the book – the reader is presented with a striking and unusual frontispiece (below).

'The last hour of the night' frontispiece illustrated by Harry Clarke

‘The last hour of the night’ frontispiece illustrated by Harry Clarke

On first inspection – you could almost wonder why this illustration is used as a frontispiece in a publication largely about the technicalities of town planning. Harry Clarke (1889-1931) was born in Dublin and worked as a book illustrator and stained-glass artist.  Clarke was also a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland.

Clarke’s The last hour of the night makes plain to the reader the damage incurred by the city during the preceding years of war and battles for independence.  It is a haunting image that alludes to the challenge faced by Abercrombie and his team to rebuild, redevelop and reinvigorate the city.

Few towns have suffered a change, physical and psychological,  during these intervening years of war, trade boom and subsequent depression: but Dublin has added the double tragedy of war and civil war within her gates.

(Dublin of the future, p. ix). 

You can see Dublin of the future in full here.

Find our more about our Landscape Institute collections here.

Questions?  Then please get in touch with us at merl@reading.ac.uk

Claire Wooldridge: Project Librarian (Landscape Institute) 

Fun and festivities at the Big Band Lunch

Science Engagement Officer, Robyn Hopcroft, reveals what we got up to at the Big Band Lunch on Sunday.

MERL Big Band Lunch Stand

Getting started at the MERL stand

Last Sunday we enjoyed glorious weather and fabulous big band music at the University of Reading’s annual Big Band Lunch. This was a chance to bring the University and local communities together over lunch, and celebrate the University’s 90th Anniversary year. A small team of staff and dedicated volunteers were in attendance and we had great fun running traditional fete games such as ‘splat the rat’ and ‘hook a duck’.

Seed Press in action

Our seed press in action. Apparently our sunflower oil was far tastier than the store-bought variety.

But the theme of the day was food and music, and we were especially interested in chatting to people about food. Where does it come from? What’s it made of? Why do we eat what we eat? By getting hands-on with activities devised for The Crunch programme, such as oat rolling and sunflower seed pressing, we were able to have some great conversations about the history and nutritious properties of oats and edible oils.

Ministry of Food 1946 leaflet with barley and oat recipes

Ministry of Food recipe leaflet (1946). Visitors were able to roll their own oats and take away some contemporary and vintage recipes for inspiration.

We even received some help from human nutrition staff and students and it was a great opportunity to find out more about some of the cutting edge research being conducted at the University. I was pleased to be able to meet and chat to scientists studying some of the potential health benefits of phenolic acids in oats. Phenolic acids are found in many plant-based foods and play a role in heart health.

Getting involved in these kinds of studies as a research participant can be great way of learning more about the work of scientists, especially given that we tend to receive sensationalised messages about nutrition and health research from the media. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify for this study – they’re recruiting male participants. But for any men who are reading: the PRO-GRAIN team are looking for some healthy males willing to eat oats for the sake of science.

Recruitment leaflet for men interested in getting involved in a study of the nutritional properties of oats.

Entomophagy: The consumption of insects as food

Edible Insects

Insects proved to be a popular snack choice for visitors to our stand.

 

Insect Taste Notes

Some mixed opinions on our edible insects.

Our edible insect challenge was one of the stand-outs of the day. We wanted to encourage people to think about the growing population and consequent increasing demand for protein. Edible insects are a cheap, nutritious, protein-rich food, and a common snack in many parts of the world.

Water Bug Tasting

This brave fellow ate one of our giant water bugs – not for the feint-hearted!

Insect farming uses a fraction of the energy, water and land needed to raise livestock. Who knows – perhaps bugs will become a regular part of the UK diet in the future? Fish and chips with a side of crispy bamboo worms…

But it wasn’t all about snacking on whole insects – wings, legs, antennae and all.  We also considered less confronting ways of consuming insects by holding a brownie blind tasting. People sampled brownies from two trays – one batch was made with wheat flour and the other was made with a mixture of wheat flour and flour milled from crickets.

Blind Tasting with normal and cricket flour brownies

Which ones are cricket flour brownies?

Tasters were asked to guess which plate contained cricket flour brownies. I can now reveal that it was PLATE A! We’ve tallied up the responses and found that 60% of people made a correct guess. Most people, myself included, seemed to think that while the wheat brownies and cricket brownies tasted different from each other, they were both delicious and there wasn’t an ‘insecty’ taste to the cricket brownies.

All in all it was great day out.  We were busy but we had lots of fun. Many thanks to everyone who was involved.

And the fun fact that I learned for the day? The people of Reading are well up for the challenge of munching on insects!

Learn more about edible insects at The Crunch.

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Interview with Reading Room Assistant Ceri (Pt. 1)

Marketing Volunteer Whitney continues her series of interviews with staff talking to Ceri Lumley, Reading Room Assistant

Photograph taken by Reading College LLD/D Photography & Work Students

Photograph taken by Reading College LLD/D Photography & Work Students

 

What does your job entail at MERL?

I’m split between working in the reading room and doing background tasks. Three days of the week I’m down in the reading room answering enquiries, doing production, getting documents out and generally helping researchers with anything they need. And then the other two days I work on various archive projects .

How do you think those two separate areas of your work compliment each other?

I don’t think I would have come across half of the interesting stuff in the collections if I didn’t do the enquiries. A lot of the time we find items because somebody has asked for a something specific. If it’s more obscure we do a bit of digging and that’s when I find some amazing things I wouldn’t have known were there unless I had trolled through the catalogue! As a result I can pass these findings onto other interested reading room visitors.

What type of people have you seen make use of the research material?

Undergraduates, Masters and PhD students, museum staff doing their own research and the public with general interest. The fact that we’ve got some local collections probably draws people in who are interested in family history, who might ask ‘I’ve got this photograph can you tell me more about it?’ So you get a lot of people coming in from different angles.

Has anyone enquired about whether you can help trace their ancestry or lineage through a photograph brought in?

Yeah, I’ve had a couple who have been distantly related to some of the aristocratic families that we’ve got farm records for. A lot of people ask about relatives who worked for big companies like Huntley and Palmers and we’ve also got Rolls of Honour from service in the military. Most of the time they’re a really good place to start. If they served then they’re probably guaranteed to be listed.

What are some of the rewarding aspects of working within a cultural heritage environment?

I got into this because I was shown an archive document many years ago and I just thought ‘that’s amazing’. I wanted to make people feel the way I did the day I looked at that archive document, and help them discover things they’ve never seen or thought existed. Before Christmas a reader was looking through the Nancy Astor Collection and they came across some really interesting letters.  Just to hear them chuckling at the table confirmed they had found something exciting. I think they actually wrote a blog post about it for us.

How do you find it working in a small team at MERL?

Yes, definitely they’ve got such a wealth of knowledge and experience that I’m always able to go to someone and say, ‘I don’t suppose you know anything about this’ and usually they have an answer. From that respect it’s really good. And it’s a nice environment because everyone is really helpful and eager to collaborate which is a great thing.

Did you study your degree with the hope of working in a museum one day?

I’ve wanted to work in this sector for years. I did work experience in my local archive and library in my GCSE years. On the last day the Archivist showed me a mortgage document on vellum and I just thought ‘that’s what I want to do’. So I went to University in York where there are so many different places you can do heritage and archiving volunteering. After graduating I came to MERL for an internship. I then moved to Network Rail’s record centre working in records management. I’m due to start the Masters in Archive and Records Management this September at UCL; it’s finally coming to the point of getting the professional qualification.

Whilst working here have you been able to discover your niche?

I’m still finding it. It’s so varied and I don’t have enough experience of different repositories as yet to say where I want to go. Every place has so much different material and so many interesting bits to it that I haven’t quite found the niche yet. It might take a few years but I’m definitely on my way to finding it.

What is that one thing that makes individuals who work within a cultural heritage get enthusiastic about what they do?

Passion. We all just generally love what we do on a daily basis. I don’t know how common that is in any other work place but within the museums & heritage sector it tends to be quite prevalent. I have been to a number of archive trainees meetings with people within similar job roles to mine and we always end up chatting for a good couple of hours afterwards, mostly about our work and what we’re doing. Overall, it’s a really good, collaborative environment.

Do you think enough work is being done to encourage people to learn more about museums?

I think we’re lucky in this country to have a good supporting nature towards our heritage. However, there are still sections of society who don’t necessarily interact with museums in any way. But I think MERL is a bit of an exception because it does a lot to increase the profile of heritage work, and the volunteer and outreach programme here is amazing. So I think MERL is an organisation that does a lot to help promote the values of museums.

Whitney: So it’s really more about looking at how museums show keen interest in and interact with their local communities.

Ceri: Yeah, I think MERL is really good at that!

Are there any places you can learn about culture heritage and history around Reading?

The town hall, Museum of Reading, the Berkshire records office which we direct a lot of people to if it’s a local history question and we don’t necessarily have the answer. There are also a couple more sites like the Reading Abbey ruins, located near Forbury gardens. The John Lewis heritage centre is also 20mins by train. There are quite a few places in the area but you don’t realise just how many there are until you start looking.

Do you think its always better to have a museum related degree before making the transition into museum work?

It probably helps but whether it’s essential I’m not entirely sure. I did a degree because I really wanted to study history. I was a bit of an exception in that I’m probably the only person out of my group of friends in University who has actually used their history degree in a history related area. A lot of the enquiries involve research and using catalogues which I probably wouldn’t have come across as much if I hadn’t done a degree. So from that side of things I think it helps for the practical things.

How do you think museums will change because of the online space and everything being digitised?

I think people will always want to come into the museum and have a look through the actual stuff. It’s a different feeling from looking at something on a screen. It’s part of the fun. However, digitisation helps a lot especially with photographs. During my internship here a couple of years ago I worked on some of the local photograph collections and got to zoom in on photographs and see specific parts of images that you wouldn’t necessarily see if you were looking at the hard copy.

 

Reading Readers – Felicity McWilliams

For this month’s Reading Readers blog, PhD student Felicity McWilliams (a familiar face at MERL) gives us an insight into how the MERL collections are playing a part in her research of draught power technology in the 20th century.

An image from Farmers Weekly showing horses and a combine harvester at work together on a farm near Durham in 1961. The farmer also used tractors but on this day they were busy on another task (MERL P FW PH2/C107/76).

An image from Farmers Weekly showing horses and a combine harvester at work together on a farm near Durham in 1961. The farmer also used tractors but on this day they were busy on another task (MERL P FW PH2/C107/76).

Last September, I left my post as Project Officer at the Museum to embark upon an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD, based jointly at King’s College London and here at MERL. I’m researching the history of draught power technology on British farms c.1920–1970. Draught power is essentially anything used to pull a load, from carts and wagons to ploughs and harvesters. I’ll admit I often get a blank look back when saying that, though, so I revert to telling people I’m doing a PhD on tractors.

It’s not just tractors though; the technological landscape of twentieth-century British farms included steam engines, horses, oxen, home-made tractors, cars, lorries, jeeps, motorcycles and even military-surplus tanks. Histories of agricultural technology (and of technology in general) have tended to focus on new machinery and innovation. Which is fine, but it means that they look mostly at manufacturers, economics and government policy and rarely at the people actually using the technology – the farmers, horsemen, tractor drivers and farm mechanics. The aim of my project is to research the wide variety of draught power sources that farmers were using and the factors that influenced their decision-making. What they could afford to buy is always important, but I’m also interested to find out how their technological skills, working relationships, values and attitudes might also have had an impact on the animals and/or machines they chose to work with.

Back issues of The Farmers Weekly in the museum's library.

Back issues of The Farmers Weekly in the museum’s library.

I’ve started by looking at the Second World War period, and over the past few months have spent a lot of time in the MERL archives reading 1940s issues of Farmers Weekly magazine. There are so many features in the magazine which help to show what farmers were thinking, discussing and buying, from adverts and articles to letters and photographs. In fact, there are so many amazing sources in the MERL archives, from films to farm diaries, that it’s a little daunting wondering how I’m ever going to find time to see everything. You can find out more about what’s in the collection here.

We’ll certainly keep up to date with Felicity’s progress and hopefully share some of the interesting things she discovers in her research.

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.

DSC_0078

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.