Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time

Written by Dr Paddy Bullard, Associate Professor in Literature and Book History at the University of Reading. @MatWitness

WhatsOn_Detail_Harrison2

Melissa Harrison is a novelist, photographer and nature writer based in south London. Her first novel, Clay (2013) established her as a leading voice among the new ‘urban naturalists’. Her second, At Hawthorn Time (2015), is a powerful and ambitious attempt to find voices for several different kinds of modern country-dweller: the itinerant causal labourer, the middle-class incomer, the rooted but economically marginalized rural twenty-something. Melissa also writes non-fiction, including Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, published by Faber in 2016 in association with the National Trust, and contributes to the ‘Nature Notes’ column in The Times.

On Tuesday 17 January Melissa visited Reading to open the MERL/DEL Visiting Speaker Series, a new programme of lunchtime talks organized by the University of Reading Department of English, in collaboration with The Museum of English Rural Life. The theme of the series this year is ‘The Intangible and Tangible Countryside’. Over five talks our speakers will look at different aspects of rural life and culture. The talks focus on how the stuff of the countryside ­– the land, its flora and fauna, its products and artifacts ­– is bound up with all sorts of elusive, immaterial things – with sounds and stories, memories and inheritances, skills and crafts. The series showcases five diverse experiments in disentangling the tangible from the intangible when we describe rural life, or when we imagine what rural life might one day be.

HawthornMelissa read three passages from her novel At Hawthorn Time, and responded dexterously to questions from the audience, and from me as session chair. Over the course of the reading we got a strong sense of the themes and ideas that preoccupy her, and that lie behind her fiction. Cultural and social ownership of the countryside – the perennial question of how to balance the interests of different occupants of and visitors to rural spaces, of whose interests should preponderate – is an especially important subject. For Melissa, conflicts of use and conflicts of meaning will always dominate the public conversation about green spaces and natural environments. In her fiction she sees rural spaces as test spaces for social pluralism, where the incompatible interests of people from different classes and backgrounds can be held together meaningfully, and in spite of that incompatibility.

The MERL curatorial team responded especially warmly to the passages that Melissa read, and to her commentary on them. There was a real sense of sympathy and shared purpose here – after all, the recent redesign of MERL has been all about opening up the collections to tell stories of the different groups of people who have lived and worked in the English countryside. As a novelist Melissa shares with the MERL curators a desire to describe and to narrate an English rural heritage which is vivid and meaningful to the widest possible range of people today, young and old, in both town and country. We all hope that this is only the first of many visits that Melissa makes to MERL and to Reading.

Our next speaker in this free series will be Tanya Harrod, the author of the prize-winning The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century. She will be speaking at The MERL on Tuesday 31 January, 12-1pm. Click here for more information.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Students: apply for a landscape research bursary before the end of February

Why should I apply?

Our landscape collections are pretty special.

Read this overview of our landscape collections or search our combined library, archive and object catalogue.

Take a look at reasons to use our landscape collections in your research and topic and resource ideas.

Highlights from our Landscape Institute Collections

Highlights from our Landscape Institute Collections

But could I apply?

Are you:

A) A taught undergraduate or postgraduate student?

B) Studying landscape architecture, design or management?  History, geography, architecture, environmental science, ecology or design?

C) Desperate to impress your dissertation supervisors?

D) Reading this before 28 Feb 2017?

Then we look forward to receiving your application!  (Just ask us if you want to check you are eligible).

If you are a taught student in part or full-time higher education, you can apply for one of landscape student travel bursaries.

We welcome your innovative ideas on how you will use our collections in your research.

How do I apply?

The purpose of the student travel bursaries is to enable students to access collections held at Reading related to landscape, including landscape design, management and architecture.

We are offering 2 bursaries of £150 each.

Applications will be by email to merl@reading.ac.uk (please put “Landscape Bursary” in the subject line).  Applications will be invited from any student in part or full-time higher education.

Interested applicants should submit a CV, and a short statement (max 400 words) outlining their interest in and current work on landscape, stating how the bursary would be spent and how it would be beneficial to their studies.  Applicants should identify those materials in the archive that would be of most benefit to them.

Timetable

28 February 2017 – applications close

31 March 2017 – successful candidates announced

Any work will need to be carried out and monies claimed by 31 July 2017.

 

Please feel free to get in touch with our Reading Room if you have any questions. We look forward to welcoming you and telling you more about our landscape collections.  

Written by Project Librarian: Claire Wooldridge

Going digital: Reading Museum and the MERL team up

The digital world is not coming, it is already here.

In fact, it has been here for some time. Online shopping is king, Google knows where you live, almost everyone has a smartphone and the President-elect speaks primarily through Twitter.

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But being able to use smartphones, graphic software, websites, social media, apps, tablets, Windows, Macs and everything else remains a steep learning curve for many. Morevoer, digital is not simply simply technology but how we have adapted to these technologies, touching on issues such as online privacy, piracy, open data, hacking and entirely new forms of communication.

And if you think it’s hard keeping up with today’s world on a personal level, imagine how difficult it is to keep entire institutions such as museums up to date.

The job is made easier by how museums are forward-looking, aim to reflect contemporary as well as past society and are keen to adapt new technologies to encourage conversation, learning and discovery. We want to be using digital technologies in marketing, displays and education. We want to be relevant and cutting-edge.

The problem is how to get there.

The Science Museum Lates are a perfect case study of how we can engage new audiences with digital technologies.

The Science Museum Lates are a perfect case study of how we can engage new audiences with digital technologies.

Getting there is the aim of #Reading: Town and Country, a joint project between Reading Museum and the Museum of English Rural Life funded by Arts Council England. Reading is lucky to have two museums which cover such a broad swathe of history and culture: Reading Museum for the town, and the Museum of English Rural Life for the country. Together, we will make the best of most museum’s areas of expertise to better serve Reading’s communities in new, digital ways.

The overview of the project is deceptively simple: to take stock of how we use digital technologies currently and the skills of our staff; to then train staff in the digital areas with most potential; and finally to put those skills to use in shared projects between the two museums.

But this is new ground for us. We need to open the eyes of our colleagues to the potential of digital for our work through case studies from the wider sector. We need to appreciate that everyone has different needs and expectations; some simply need to know how to use Twitter, while others may be interested in how we could use 3D-printing and Virtual Reality. We need to be prepared to thoroughly review our institutional plans and strategies, and ensure they take digital opportunities and realities into account. Above all, we need to make sure that our audiences benefit.

The project will tie the MERL and Reading Museum closer together.

The project will tie the MERL and Reading Museum closer together.

We are not starting from ground zero, however. Both museums of course have websites, are on social media and have online object databases. Both museums, however, are aware that to remain relevant to our communities we need to be incorporating new technologies into what we do, to be using social media effectively and ensure our systems are keeping pace.

What this means for our visitors is a step-change in how the museum operates to take account of how the world is changing. It means exciting new ways for you to get involved and to learn new things.

What this means for staff is an exciting opportunity to learn new skills, use new technology and transform how we operate both internally and for our audiences.

You can keep up with what we do on our blog, as well as by keeping a close eye on Reading Museum’s and the MERL’s social media accounts!

Reading Museum Twitter

Reading Museum Facebook

The MERL Twitter

The MERL Facebook

@AdamKoszary

January Book Sale

The MERL shop kicks off 2017 with the traditional January Sale. This is your chance to pick up some fantastic bargains, especially among our wide range of books.

book sale jan 17

None of us know what the internet sensation of 2017 will be. But there is no doubt that the sensation of 2016 was the MERL mousetrap story! Want to know the stories behind these deadly little devices? Dip into David Drummond’s “British mouse traps and their makers” (£1.50).

For anyone who has seen our new Evacuee interactive, we recommend two books by Martin Parsons – “War child” and “I’ll take that one” – through his research work, Martin was responsible for building up the Museum’s incredible collection of evacuee memoirs. He is a leading expert on the experiences of children in wartime and his books help to dispel many of the myths about this fascinating period. We have copies of both titles signed by the author (£6.00 and £5.00 respectively).

First encounters with the countryside are also dealt with by “In at the deep end” (£1.50). Agriculture lecturer Paul Harris gathered accounts from 41 students who – despite not growing up on a farm – took the brave decision to study agriculture and found themselves getting a year’s work experience. Completed only weeks before Dr Harris’s death in 2013, these are compelling and fascinating stories, where the warmth of the welcome given by the farmers and farmworkers stands in contrast with the cold of the winter mornings!

If you enjoyed our apple-themed activities at the Grand Re-opening Festival, then Michael Clark’s “Apples, a field guide” (£5.00) may well be the book for you. It can help you to identify that unknown apple growing in your garden or in the park. Or if you are feeling ambitious, you can use it to help you choose which variety to plant! Of course, if you want to go even further and take the path to self-sufficiency, then what better than Sonia Kurta’s “No dear, that’s a pheasant, we’re peasants” (£2.50), full of the pitfalls of having a smallholding and tips for those brave enough to try living “the good life”.

Whatever your interests – from folk art to traction engines and from literature to local history – there are plenty more bargains to be picked up this month. The MERL Shop Sale runs until 5 February.

Evacuees visiting The MERL

The Evacuees next to the interactive that tells their stories.

The evacuees next to the interactive that tells their stories.

On 28 November 2016, The MERL welcomed seven evacuees and their families to the Museum. The evacuees had agreed to allow the Museum to include their stories in the evacuee interactive and the day was designed to thank all involved for their participation. The day included showing the evacuees the interactive for the first time, photographing the evacuees and the evacuees recording their written memoirs. The photographs and audio will now be added to the interactive in the Town and Country gallery.

The evacuees included Peter Terry and Barbara Wood.

Peter Terry, June 1940

Peter Terry, June 1940

Peter Terry, 2016.

Peter Terry, 2016.

Peter Terry was evacuated from Ilford Essex with the Beal School to Kennylands Camp, Sonning Common, Berkshire. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England recommended to the Government in 1938 that camps should be built in various country areas with the object of giving deprived children from inner cities the opportunity of having a holiday in the countryside. It was envisaged that the camps could be used as evacuation centres if necessary. Kennylands was the first camp to be finished and occupied.

Barbara and Betty as young evacuees.

Barbara and Betty as young evacuees.

Barbara and Betty, 2016.

Barbara and Betty, 2016.

Barbara and Betty Wood were evacuated from Sea Mills, Bristol to Rockwell Green, Somerset. Barbara said of the experience, “Although there were unhappy times that we stayed there, Uncle always seemed to be there to listen when we felt sad. Long after the war was over, Auntie and Uncle used to come and stay with us for holidays.”

The MERL holds over 600 evacuee memoirs of children who were evacuated in Britain and overseas.

To find out more about the archive, click here.

Caroline Gould (Principal Archivist)

Discovering the Landscape: Post-War Landscape Architecture project awarded Academic Engagement Bursary

We are delighted to announce that Amber Roberts has been awarded our Landscape Academic Engagement Bursary.

Great West House, Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Great West House, Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Amber will be using our Michael Brown Collection to analyse key design theories and projects in the development of the profession of landscape architecture, 1945-1975.  The project will focus on post-war modernist Britain and the international outreach of British landscape architecture.  The post-war era saw significant changes to the practice of landscape architecture, such as the focus on new towns, motorways and industrial sites.

Redditch New Town, Michael Brown (AR BRO)

Redditch New Town, Michael Brown (AR BRO)

Amber’s project will highlight the potential of our Michael Brown Collection whilst shedding light on developments in the field of landscape architecture in the post war period.

Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Michael Brown (1923-1996) was a landscape architect and urban designer known for his limited use of materials which produced distinctive landscapes.  The collection contains drawings, slides and photographs.

Thank you to everyone who applied for the bursary.  We received some great applications and it was a tough decision.  We wish Amber all the best with her research and we are looking forward to keeping you up to date with her progress.

 

 

 

Students: your landscape archive needs you

If you are an undergraduate student, don’t forget you have until the end of February 2017 to apply for a bursary to support your use of our landscape collections.  Click here for more information.

Show Garden, Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Show Garden, Michael Brown Collection (AR BRO)

Please feel free to get in touch with our Reading Room if you have any questions. We look forward to welcoming you and telling you more about our landscape collections.  

Written by Project Librarian: Claire Wooldridge

Poultry Show, Telford

Written by Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist

The MERL attended the Poultry Club of Great Britain National Show at the weekend (19-20 November 2016). It was held at the International Centre, Telford. The MERL took a display of items from the David Scrivener Collection, an expert on poultry.

David Scrivener Collection

David Scrivener Collection

It was the first time The MERL had attended the show. Guy Baxter, David Plant and Caroline Gould spoke to over 180 members of the Poultry Club and general public over the weekend.  We had some fascinating conversations. It was a wonderful experience. I was totally amazed by seeing all the different breeds of poultry in one place and couldn’t stop myself taking pictures.

Prize poultry

Prize poultry

 

The Poultry Club of Great Britain agreed at their AGM to provide a £25,000 grant to the Museum of English Rural Life to catalogue, digitise and conserve the David Scrivener Collection of slides, postcards, prints and books. The grant will also pay for activities of public and academic engagement. We wish to thank the Poultry Club for their generous grant and we are very enthusiastic about the forthcoming project. We will keep you informed of our progress.

 

Poultry at show

Poultry at show

eggs

 

Childrens entries at the show

Children’s entries at the show

Discovering the Landscape: how to use our collections in your research

Are you an undergraduate, postgraduate, independent researcher or at school?

Are you studying history, geography, architecture, environmental science, ecology or design?

Then come and use our landscape collections in your research (if you’re an undergraduate apply for one of our landscape student bursaries).  We’ve even got topic and resource ideas listed here.

So why use our landscape collections?  And how?

3 reasons to use our landscape collections:

1. National significance

MERL now holds the best collection of 20th century landscape archives and library material in the UK.  Our Landscape Institute collections hold everything from plans, drawings, slides, books, journals and pamphlets to the LI’s institutional archive containing all of their corporate records, such as minutes and membership files.

So if you are interested in a particular project (from anywhere across the UK), a specific landscape architect (maybe Jellicoe, Crowe, Colvin?), the Landscape Institute itself or the emergence of landscape architecture as a profession then we have what you need.

Lots of our other collections support landscape studies too, such as The Land Settlement Association and the Open Spaces Society.

AR JEL DO1 S2/20

Geoffrey Jellicoe collection, Shute House, AR JEL DO1 S2/20

2.  Explore your archive

Every day we inhabit built and natural environments.  The landscape is all around us, all the time, shaping and informing our lives.

You can reveal all that our landscape collections have to offer by using them in your research.  You can draw out previously unknown themes, connections and discoveries.

We house the collections, keeping them safe and making them available to you.

But only you can bring them alive by using them in your research.

For the MERL and Special Collections teams to thrive, we need tea.  (Never near the collections, of course).  For our landscape collections to shine, they need to be accessed and used.

So be inspired by the National Archives Explore Your Archive week: come and find our more about our landscape collections.

Colvin inscription to the Jellicoe's, in the front cover of a 2nd edition of her Land and Landscape.

Colvin inscription to the Jellicoe’s, in the front cover of a 2nd edition of her Land and Landscape.

 

3. Visual delights!

Our Reading Room visitors are greeted by our beautiful peacock stained glass window

Our Reading Room visitors are greeted by our beautiful peacock stained glass window

We host a lot of reader’s in our wonderful Reading Room.  So we know that you could spend many studious hours looking at reports, minutes or papers.

All very good research that is too.

But you could be looking at this stuff:

(just saying)

Highlights from our Landscape Institute Collections

Highlights from our Landscape Institute Collections

 

How to search and access our landscape collections

We hope you have been inspired to use our landscape collections.  Here’s how you can find out more:

Students: your landscape archive needs you

If you are an undergraduate student, don’t forget you have until the end of February 2017 to apply for a bursary to support your use of our landscape collections.  Click here for more information.

Please feel free to get in touch with our Reading Room if you have any questions. We look forward to welcoming you and telling you more about our landscape collections.  

Written by Project Librarian: Claire Wooldridge

Archives featured in the Galleries

Written by Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist

Sheep Dipping

Sheep Dipping

The new galleries were opened on 19 October 2016, after a £3million redevelopment programme with £1.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).  Prior to the redevelopment, the galleries contained a large number of objects with little interpretation. We were keen to include archives, archival film and photographs through the new displays aiming to revitalise the way visitors engage with the Museum’s extraordinary collections.

In February 2014, we started researching the archives and photographs to identify items for possible inclusion in the galleries. Our strategy on how to include archives in the galleries developed over time.  However, we found five main ways to feature archives.

We have included photographs in the galleries to aid interpretation of the objects and themes. In Gallery 2, ‘A Year on the Farm’, the largest photograph measures 2280m x 2500m, it shows sheep dipping in progress (John Tarlton Collection).  Our sheep dip object is placed in front of the photograph.

We have used archives in cases on a limited basis. The cases are likely to remain quite fixed. This is a challenge if we wish to permanently preserve the archives. The cases are not environmentally controlled and prolonged opening of volumes for display will, in time, damage the item. We therefore will need to

Blacksmith account book of Wiltshire 1934-1939

Blacksmith account book of Wiltshire 1934-1939

monitor the archives selected carefully. However, having said all this the items we have selected look great. I am particularly pleased with the blacksmith account book of Wiltshire 1934-1939 in the wagon walk.

In three galleries we have created 18 drawers under cases which feature archives and books. The items will change every 4-6 months. This provides an opportunity to display more of the collections which have previously only been consulted in the Reading Room. Visitors will be able to browse these collections and hopefully see new items when they next visit. Currently in Gallery 3, ‘Town and Country’, we have a drawer in the ‘Grow your Own’ section. This displays a minute book and report from ‘The Women’s Farm and Garden Association’ which details the setting up

Minute book and report from ‘The Women’s Farm and Garden Association’

Minute book and report from ‘The Women’s Farm and Garden Association’

the Women’s National Land Service Corps, which later became the Women’s Land Army, dated 23 May 1916.

There are some wonderful gaming interactives in the new galleries; lambing time appears to be the favourite at the moment.  Two interactives feature over 790 photographs from The MERL collections. ‘Then and Now’ is located in Gallery 3 it allows visitors to explore our photographs for the local area. We have included current photographs for Caversham, Wokingham and Hambledon. Gallery 4 features the ‘Voices and Views’ interactive, for each county we have included 10 photographs and some sound clips. Another interactive in Gallery 3, features the evacuee archive; it allows visitors to explore the stories of eleven individuals: nine evacuees, one teacher and one host son. Included in the display are contemporary photographs, letters and diaries.

The MERL holds over 1500 archival films, including films of the Ministry of Agriculture Film Library, National Dairy Council and Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies promotional films.  In Gallery 6 ‘Forces for Change’ we have a screen to show ten archival films, edited to seven minutes each. The current selection includes two compilations from Screen Archive South East and the Wessex Film and Sound Archive. The Britain on Film Rural Life programme has funded four events in West Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Berkshire. The project is funded by The British Film institute. The compilation films at The MERL will be screened until the end of the year.

We created six photo albums featuring twenty photographs or documents. Gallery 2 ‘A year on the Far

‘Making Rural England’ photograph album featuring crafts and the home.

‘Making Rural England’ photograph album featuring crafts and the home.

m’ shows farming through the seasons, while three photo albums in Gallery 3 ‘Town and Country’ complement the featured objects: the horse, the steam engine and the Land Rover. Additionally in Gallery 5 ‘Making Rural England’, two photo albums feature crafts and the home.

We have worked on selection of these items for over two years. It is now wonderful to visit the galleries and see visitors enjoying the displays.  A special thanks to Caroline Benson, Photographic Assistant without whom the above would have been impossible.

Shaping the Land – why is the first of our new galleries all about trees?

Written by Guy Baxter, Archivist

The introductory text

The introductory text

The first space that visitors to the new MERL galleries enter is deceptively simple. It contains one object (a timber carriage), one large picture (an oak tree) and one literary quotation. Thanks to the projected animation and immersive soundscape, visitors can also see and hear the seasons change in the woods.

The gallery was conceived to give visitors the idea of being out in the countryside – after all, the Museum is in the middle of a large town. This is where we hint at the idea of there having been a “natural” environment, before people came along and started “shaping the land”. The theme of woodland reminds us that a greater proportion of England would have been wooded in pre-historic times, and so our ancestors would have faced the massive task of clearing trees in order to grow crops and graze animals.

But the gallery also carries a number of smaller and more subtle messages. Let’s start with the oak tree. Not only is this a powerful symbol of England – it appears on the “English” version of the pound coin after all – but the image chosen is the first photograph ever taken of an oak, by William Henry Fox

The Fox Talbot tree and the timber carriage

The Fox Talbot tree and the timber carriage

Talbot. Of course, his connection to Reading is well known given that he produced The Pencil of Nature, the world’s first photographic book, in the town. His oak tree is shown in the winter, standing strong against the ravages of time. Longevity is another trait of oak trees that suits the context of the gallery: the “timeframe” here is one of centuries not years.

The second idea that we introduce is seasonality. This is done through our animation which effectively shows all four seasons in one day – not such a rare occurrence in England! The animation, made by the Netherlands-based firm ShoSho, shows a woodland and also some land beyond that has been cleared – but with a lone oak in the background as well. In this gallery we introduce the changing seasons in nature partly as a prelude to the next section, A Year on the Farm, which examines how the seasons relate to the food that we grow and eat.

The animals that occasionally appear in the animation include a gall wasp. This was partly inspired by Dr George McGavin’s amazing documentary on oak trees in which he notes not only the symbiosis between the gall wasp and the tree but also the subsequent use of oak gall in the production of ink. So much of what is in our library and archive – indeed so much of our recorded history and knowledge – owes a debt to that relationship between insect and tree.

In front of the animation stands the timber carriage – a large and constant reminder of man’s interaction with the land. The carriage itself, also known as a ‘timber jill’, was used for hauling timber by

Photograph of a timber carriage in use

Photograph of a timber carriage in use

the Hunt Brothers of Waterside Works, a firm of millwrights in Soham, Cambridgeshire. The donor, Mr Tom Hunt, requested that they be recorded as ‘in memory of Thomas B. Hunt, Millwright, of Waterside Works, Soham, Cambs.’ This was his father, who died in 1954 at the age of 95 and was working almost up to the last. It was given to the MERL in 1955 – the year that we opened to the public for the first time – so it’s appropriate that it should be “object number 1 in gallery number 1” as we re-open.

We have also displayed a photograph, from the Miss Wight Collection, to show a similar carriage in use. The photograph was taken around 1935 in Aconbury Woods, Herefordshire.

The quotation, chosen by Dr Paddy Bullard in the Department of English and American Literature, is from the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It comes from his poem Pied Beauty. We also considered another of Hopkins’s poems, Binsey Poplars in which he mourns the felling of trees in 1879;

The quotation and the images of leaves

The quotation and the images of leaves

and we looked at using a section from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Houseman (verse 31) which describes the same wind blowing through the trees that blew on the Romans many centuries before.

Finally, we added some images of leaves – manipulated by our photographer Laura Bennetto to reflect the style of Fox Talbot’s early leaf photographs. The actual images were provided by the Dr Alastair Culham at the University Herbarium and show the following native English varieties: oak, elm, ash, beech, willow, hawthorn, hazel, elder and apple. The leaf motif has also been used to decorate the new areas of glass in the Museum’s introductory area.

This has been a really fascinating gallery to work on and – because of its seeming simplicity – also quite a challenge. We took inspiration from many places and, made some fascinating discoveries along the way – not least David Hockney’s brilliant Yorkshire Wolds film. It has also been a really collaborative effort and one that has, we hope brought out the best of our creative, technical and curatorial skills.