Inspiring Creativity with Objects: Collections-based activities for families

During her time at MERL as Public Programmes Manager, covering maternity leave, Phillippa Heath has introduced some some great new workshops enabling families to get closer to our collections. In this post, Phillippa looks at how the positive reaction to the new sessions will influence our future planning for families…

Whenever we plan a family events programme at the Museum, we look for fun and engaging ways we can relate activities to the collections in the Museum whether it is through our objects, archives or books, or even the themes they represent. This helps us create unique experiences that our visitors wouldn’t find elsewhere.  Whatever the age group, there’s always something we can call on for inspiration in the collections, our Victorian building or the beautiful garden.

During my time working at MERL, I have tried to ensure our activities allow opportunities for our family visitors to get even more up close and personal to the collections than usual. During the Easter holidays, as part the Basket Weaving workshops and the Decoupage Egg Cup workshops, all attendees visited the object store on the mezzanine level. The visit to the object store- a treasure trove of collections normally only accessible on guided tours- allowed us to get a closer look at specially selected objects relating to the workshop themes.

basket workshop

Families visit the mezzanine to see the basket collection before making their own woven fabric baskets

For each of these workshops, the families were able to see relevant artefacts, ask museum staff questions about them and carry out observational drawings before moving on to do their craft. We received some amazingly positive feedback. One Mum, Dr Emma Mayhew, wrote:

“I genuinely thought that the entire workshop was really well thought out, highly educational and thoroughly enjoyable. The Mezzanine level trip was a great new feature…. The brief talk, interactive question and answer session and activity worksheet mirror the kinds of activity that they would normally undertake during a school trip so this is all familiar to the children and makes parents feel that they really are engaged in an activity with educational value. Obviously the craft session afterwards was really enjoyable as well. Our decoupage egg cups and eggs are taking pride of place in our Easter display”.

Decoupage Easter display

The Mayhew’s lovely Easter display including their decoupage egg cups made at MERL

Since Easter, we have continued to embrace this type of workshop structure for other family activities including the Palmer’s Painted Glass workshop in May half term and, for the Summer’s Applique and Stitch , Felt Making and Bread Making workshops we are hoping to do something similar. In the Applique and Stitch workshop, families will have the unique opportunity to see one of our huge 1951 wall-hangings as it is being worked on by an expert conservator, who is preparing it for being displayed for the first time in 60 years as part of the Our Country Lives project. The families will then use this as inspiration for creating their own landscape wall-hanging using layered fabrics and hand stitching.

One of Michael O'Connell's 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

One of Michael O’Connell’s 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

This is definitely the kind of activity we would like to explore further. As a result of this and, in conjunction with the fact that we are currently developing a collection of objects suitable for handling, it is very much hoped that our visitors will be able to gain even more from their visits to MERL in the years to come.

If you would like get involved in planning future family activities at MERL, why not come along to our special family tour on July 29th (2.30-3.15pm) to find out about plans for a Family Forum as part of the Our Country Lives redevelopment project. It’s free and there’s no need to book so we look forward to seeing you.

 

 

 

Weekly what’s on: 22nd to 27th July

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events in our What’s On  guides, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar

 

Guided tourGuided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.

 

 

rural reads 4th birthday invitationRural Reads 4th Birthday Party
Thursday 24th July, 5.30-7.30pm
Free, RSVP merlevents@reading.ac.uk or call 0118 378 8660
Join us to celebrate 4 years of the Rural Reads book club. Find out about the books read over the years, including this month’s book, Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’.  We’ll also be revealing plans to expand the book club’s remit. Click here for more details.

 

 

Teddy Bear's Picnic 2010 041Teddy Bears’ Picnic
Friday 25th July, 12-2pm
Free, drop-in
Suitable for families with children of all ages
Bring your teddy, a picnic and come and have fun in our garden!

 

 

Exhibitions

DennyReading University College: WW1 and beyond
Tuesday 1st April to 31 August, 2014
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Funded by Arts Council England as part of the Reading Connections project, and inspired by the University of Reading Memorial Book and Clock Tower memorial, this exhibition reveals the stories of the men and women with connections to the then Reading University College, who fell during the First World War. The exhibition also looks at the theme of War in a broader sense with interesting items from MERL and the Special Collections relating to other conflicts.
Part of our WW1 programme

 

greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
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’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. 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 new Our Country Lives project.

 

Huntley & Palmers and the MERL shop

Claire Smith, Visitor Services Assistant, looks at MERL’s links with biscuit company, Huntley & Palmers, and the development of new related products for the MERL shop

MERL has very strong links with Huntley & Palmers. Not only do we look after their archives, we’re based in Alfred Palmer’s former home!

The University of Reading Special Collections Services and the Museum of English Rural Life are housed in a Grade II listed building, which was originally known as East Thorpe, the home of Sir Alfred Palmer of the Huntley and Palmers biscuit company.

East Thorpe was designed and built by the architect Alfred Waterhouse between 1880–1882. Many original aspects remain, such as the beautiful stained glass in the Staircase Hall and Reading Room.

East ThorpeThe building was given to the University in 1911, when it became St Andrew’s Hall. MERL has been based here since 2005. More information is available in the online exhibition on our website .

The records of Huntley & Palmers  cover the period 1837-1995, the collections consists of documentary materials from all areas of the business, including financial records, correspondence, sales records, promotional material, production records, packaging designs and specimens, photographs, published material and audio visual items. The recipes in the archives inspired our Biscuit Bake-off competition launched earlier this yearThe archives are accessible to the public, via the Special Collections reading room.

Some of the artwork for the Huntley & Palmers packaging is absolutely beautiful and it is such a shame that it is hidden in the archives stores. Last year we were delighted to be able to use some of the stunning images to create items which we now stock in the MERL shop, such as notecards, invitations, mirrors and wrapping paper. Read more in a previous post Some of these are now available in the MERL online store

H&P thank you

We have recently extended the Huntley & Palmers range to include  striking biscuit tins, also based on original designs. We also have packets of biscuits currently made by the company, now based in Suffolk, some of which are based on century-old recipes. 

H&P shop latest

We are currently working with Reading Museum on an Arts Council funded project entitled Reading Engaged, part of which will focus on new products for both museums’ shops. Huntley & Palmers seemed like a natural place to start, as both the University of Reading’s Special Collections and Reading Museum have such extensive collections. We will also be investigating other shared ground, for example our Waterhouse-designed buildings, and other local companies such as Suttons Seeds. The aim of the retail-focussed part of the project is to pool our resources to develop new bespoke product ranges which compliment both museums.

Rural Reads review #7: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.

640px-Jane_Austen_coloured_version

Jane Austen

For the warm, sun-filled month of June we read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, a quintessentially English book and author. We decided to read it because we realised that in the four years of our book group we had not read a single Jane Austen novel, so we thought it was time to rectify it with Northanger Abbey.

The novel focuses on the character Catherine Morland, who has an overactive imagination. Catherine is taken to Bath for the season by the friendly Allen’s, where she meets the Tilney’s and is subsequently taken to their estate at Northanger Abbey. It is of course a romance and Catherine is eventually swept off her feet by the dashing Mr Tilney.

A majority of the novel is set in Bath, and personally I believe it is the better half of the book. Austen vividly recreates Bath for the reader, with its lavish balls, gossip and excitement. One of my favourite chapters is when Catherine and Mrs Allen cannot find anywhere to sit, and when they finally do find somewhere they then cannot get any service and do not know anyone else at the party, which makes them both feel very uncomfortable. The book group felt this is a prime example of how Austen’s writing is still relevant for today’s audience, particularly regarding social awkwardness and the desperation to be part of the bigger party.

Catherine and Mr Tilney in the BBC adaptation.

Catherine and Mr Tilney in the BBC adaptation.

One of themes of the book is reading itself; the rise of the novel as a pastime is shown in how Catherine refers and makes connections to The Mysteries of Udolphoa book she is reading. One of our members remembers reading it at University, and she says that although the book isn’t what we would imagine to be gothic nowadays, it caused a sensation when first published. Catherine’s enjoyment of reading novels is an insight into social history of the period, as the reading of novels was a growing popular pastime  amongst middle and upper class ladies. Throughout the novel Catherine allows her imagination to run wild, applying gothic novel themes to real life which, as you can expect, gets her into trouble.

As a whole we enjoyed Northanger Abbey, we had a lively conversation about the book and agreed it was nice to finally read an Austen. For July we are reading Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and we are meeting on Thursday 24th July at 5.30.

Weekly what’s on: 7th to 13th July

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events in our What’s On  guides, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar

 

Graduation garden party 2013Graduation parties notice
Weds 9 to Fri 11th July
As a University museum we are delighted to be able to host graduation day parties for students and their families celebrating the occasion. The Museum, exhibitions and reading room will be open as usual throughout the week, but our garden will be very busy, and not quite the usual peaceful haven for visitors! Our car park is not used by graduation visitors but there will be no over-flow parking available on the adjacent Acacia Road, and the entrance is likely to be busy.We apologise for any inconvenience caused. If you have any queries, please call 0118 378 8660 or email merlevents@reading.ac.uk 

 

 

Guided tourGuided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.

 

 

 

jethro 8 cutout flipToddler time
Due to University of Reading graduation parties taking place at the Museum this week, we are sorry to say that there will be no Toddler Time. We look forward to seeing you all again on the 18th.

 

 

 

Exhibitions

DennyReading University College: WW1 and beyond
Tuesday 1st April to 31 August, 2014
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Funded by Arts Council England as part of the Reading Connections project, and inspired by the University of Reading Memorial Book and Clock Tower memorial, this exhibition reveals the stories of the men and women with connections to the then Reading University College, who fell during the First World War. The exhibition also looks at the theme of War in a broader sense with interesting items from MERL and the Special Collections relating to other conflicts.
Part of our WW1 programme

 

greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
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’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. 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 new Our Country Lives project.

 

Our Boneshaking connection to cycling

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

At the moment of writing, 198 lycra-clad men from across the world are cycling through the Cambridgeshire countryside. They’re riding the best bicycles in the world (with the best thighs in the world), aiming for a finish line at Buckingham Palace, the prize of a yellow jersey and a round of applause from the royal family.

It is of course le Tour de France, which held the Grand Départ in Yorkshire this past weekend. If you’ve managed to catch any of the action in between Wimbledon, the Grand Prix or the World Cup, you will also have seen the riders passing through some of the best scenery in England.

Leeds saw the Grand Départ on Saturday 5th July (Copyright Sky)

Leeds saw the Grand Départ on Saturday 5th July (Copyright Sky)

Cycling, to me, is the perfect way to see the countryside. It’s healthy, it’s fast and it doesn’t cost the environment. It’s also the perfect time to get cycling – alongside le Tour, we have the successes of Team GB in the Olympics, initiatives such as the new ReadyBikes in Reading (we have a station outside the Museum by the way), and growing government encouragement to thank for cycling’s current surge in popularity.

I didn’t have to look too far to find an important part of cycling history in MERL’s collection either. The ‘Boneshaker’ pictured below was one of the objects which caught my eye when I first visited the Museum, both because of its name and its strange appearance. It looks like an ancient prototype of the modern bicycle, something utterly unlike the sleek machines we have today. Instead of aluminium and carbon fibre, it is made of iron and wood; instead of disc brakes, it has a small wooden block operated by a string; and instead of gears and chains, it has its pedals attached directly to the axle of the front wheel. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the bike got its nickname.

The Bone-Shaker in the 1960s without saddle and pedals (L), and today (R).

The BoneShaker in the 1960s without saddle and pedals (L), and today (R).

Yet despite the oddity of these features, it is the direct precursor of the modern bicycle – the essential parts are there after all, and all that is left is a process of refinement. This new type of bicycle began appearing around 1865, and it wasn’t until 1869 that bicycles with wire spokes began to be made. What had come before – more simple velocipedes and the hobby-horse – were inferior compared to it. However, it is worth mentioning that our Boneshaker was once mistaken for a hobby-horse, which has no pedals, before a Conservator added a pair to it in 1979.

The simple braking mechanism (L), and ironwork on the front of the bicycle (R)

The simple braking mechanism (L), and ironwork on the front of the bicycle (R)

The seat is a later addition by a previous Conservator.

The seat is a later addition by a previous Conservator.

In fact, the Boneshaker betrays all the fine craftsmanship of village carpenters, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. It seems a clumsy object only when compared with modern bicycles, whereas a closer look shows the elegant construction of the wheels, with the felloes (spokes) precisely arranged around a tiny hub usually 5 inches in diameter, as opposed to the much larger wagon hub.

The ironwork is also handmade by blacksmiths, and the fact that each of these bikes is bespoke makes you look again at the understated curve of the horizontal bar which allows a slight spring, and the almost ornamental braking system.

The letter from the donor.

The donor’s letter.

The Boneshaker is also an unfortunate nickname, which probably owes more to the state of the roads in the 1860s than the construction of the bicycle itself. This particular one was owned by Dame F.H.L. Clayton-East, who used to live in Hall Place in Hurley, now occupied by the Berkshire College of Agriculture. It was used to cycle around the grounds of the Hall, as it was illegal at the time to cycle on the roads (although you probably wouldn’t want to anyway). Before her death it was given by her to a Mr Claude Brighten, a chartered surveyor in Maidenhead. He was moved to donate the bicycle to MERL after reading an article in Country Life detailing the history of the Bone-Shaker, as well as visiting MERL, which at the time was a travelling open-air museum.

In conclusion, the beauty of the Boneshaker to me is as a piece of design. You can see in this bicycle of c.1865 the bare bones of the vehicle we have today, a design which has proven to be timeless.

Weekly what’s on: 30th June to 6th July

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events in our What’s On  guide, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar

MERL Seminar series: The Great War & the countryside
Eggs Enlisted? Egg production and the impact of war
by Dr Nicola Verdon, Reader in Modern British History, Sheffield Hallam University
Tuesday 1st July, 1-2pm
Free. Drop-in / register
Why not take the opportunity to see the Reading University College: WW1 & beyond display at the same time. (See below)
Click here for details of the full seminar programme

 

Guided tourGuided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.

 

 

 

jethro 8 cutout flipToddler time
Friday 4th July, 10-11am
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we will be painting with corks!

 

Exhibitions

DennyReading University College: WW1 and beyond
Tuesday 1st April to 31 August, 2014
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Funded by Arts Council England as part of the Reading Connections project, and inspired by the University of Reading Memorial Book and Clock Tower memorial, this exhibition reveals the stories of the men and women with connections to the then Reading University College, who fell during the First World War. The exhibition also looks at the theme of War in a broader sense with interesting items from MERL and the Special Collections relating to other conflicts.
Part of our WW1 programme

 

Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
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’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. 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 new Our Country Lives project.

 

Our Country Lives goes ahead with £1.7m HLF grant

We are all very pleased and excited to announce that we have been successful in securing a further £1.7m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, in order to redevelop MERL as part of the Our Country Lives project! You can see our press release here.

 

As it was #MusCake day this week as well, we thought we'd celebrate with an Our Country Lives themed cake.

As it was #MusCake day this week as well, we thought we’d celebrate with an Our Country Lives themed cake.

That we have got to this stage is testament to the huge amount of work we’ve already done in reviewing what we as a Museum stand for, and our plan for how we can best tell the story of English rural life to our visitors. One of the main reasons for redeveloping MERL is that we’re aware that there is a new generation of visitors who need different ways of engaging with our rural heritage through new, themed displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities. The galleries will be more engaging for adults and children alike, with things to interact with in the galleries, handling opportunities and far more digital interpretation of the collections, which will display the incredible depth and variety of our Archives, including film and photography.

Visitor evaluation – as it should – has played a big part in directing our work. The majority of our visitors do not live in the countryside, so we aim to reveal the relevance of the countryside to those whose lives have been spent in towns and cities. However, just because someone lives in the city obviously doesn’t mean they don’t have experience of or are entirely unaware of the countryside. As such, we will be exploring various popular themes such as craft and craftspeople, how we view and perceive the countryside, and invite our visitors to tell us what they think of contemporary issues, such as climate change, food security and the relationship between town and country. We will also be focusing far more on the people, past and present, who make up the countryside, and what their stories can tell us about our continuing countryside story.

Staff and volunteers celebrated the news yesterday.

Staff and volunteers celebrated the news yesterday.

There is almost too much to tell you about in this one blog post – for instance, we’re uncovering displays unseen since the ‘50s (such as our amazing Festival of Britain wall hangings – see below), building a new gallery, creating new spaces for learning and exploring our collections digitally, embarking on an exciting three year programme of new events and activities – the list could go on (and does so here). For now, we’ve taken a breather to celebrate with cake and to take a month or so to make all the preparations necessary to start on the project proper.

One of the best ways to keep up with progress on the project will be this blog, but we’re also working on various other ways you can see what we’re doing behind the scenes, and what you can expect in the new MERL. We would also like to say thank you to all of those who have helped us get this far in the project: MERL staff, our funders, our consultants GuM and Cultural Consulting, the University of Reading, and of course our fabulous volunteers.

One of Michael O'Connell's 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

One of Michael O’Connell’s 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

Weekly What’s On: 23rd to 29th June

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events in our What’s On  guide, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar

MERL Seminar series: The Great War & the countryside
Food, diet and consumption on the Home Front: standards of living amongst rural households during the First World War
by Dr Nicola Verdon, Reader in Modern British History, Sheffield Hallam University
Tuesday 24th June, 1-2pm
Free. Drop-in / register
Why not take the opportunity to see the Reading University College: WW1 & beyond display at the same time. (See below)
Click here for details of the full seminar programme

 

Guided tourGuided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.

 

 

 

Rural reads library booksRural Reads book club
Thurs 26th June, 5.30-7pm
Free, drop-in
Join us for an informal discussion of this month’s book, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

 

 

jethro 8 cutout flipToddler time
Friday 27th June, 10-11am
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities.

 

Exhibitions

DennyReading University College: WW1 and beyond
Tuesday 1st April to 31 August, 2014
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Funded by Arts Council England as part of the Reading Connections project, and inspired by the University of Reading Memorial Book and Clock Tower memorial, this exhibition reveals the stories of the men and women with connections to the then Reading University College, who fell during the First World War. The exhibition also looks at the theme of War in a broader sense with interesting items from MERL and the SPecial Collections relating to other conflicts.
Part of our WW1 programme

 

greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
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’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. 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 new Our Country Lives project.

 

MERL archive contributes to US National History Day

Written by Guy Baxter, University Archivist.

MERL, along with academic colleagues at the University of Reading, has contributed to a documentary film made by a middle school student for the US National History Day. The film, entitled “Operation Pied Piper: Balancing Parental Rights and Government Responsibility”, drew on the Evacuee Archive, the Humphrey Fisher Archive and also featured interviews with Dr Jacqui Turner (History) and Dr Martin Parsons (retired from the Institute of Education, who founded the Evacuee Archive).

35_27361

We are proud to announce that student Hayley Hocking achieved fourth place overall in the Junior Individual Documentary category and won the California State prize for an outstanding entry. Everyone at MERL would like to congratulate Hayley, who is a student at the Frank Augustus Miller Middle School in Riverside on her achievement. President Obama attended the awards ceremony.

US National History Day aims to “make history come alive for students by engaging them in the discovery of the historical, cultural and social experiences of the past. Through hands-on experiences and presentations, today’s kids are better able to inform the present and shape the future.” For more details see the National History Day website.

The Evacuee Archive at MERL contains written memoirs, oral history interviews and some research material relating to former evacuees and war-children gathered by the Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies at the University of Reading. The collection mainly relates to evacuation schemes within Britain and the British children who were sent overseas to Canada, the USA, South Africa, and Australasia during the Second World War. Operation Pied Piper (the evacuation of children from British cities) was the most prominent of these operations. For more details see this link.