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.

War Child

The MERL is very excited to announce the publication of War Child, an online ‘mixed-media book’ which explores our Evacuee Archive from a fascinating new angle.  In this visually stunning work, Teresa Murjas, Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Theatre & Television at the University of Reading, and alumnus and film-maker James Rattee have woven together an intricate tapestry of content focusing on the story of how the archive came into being and how it continues to shape the life of its creator, Martin Parsons.

war child2 sm
The inspiration for this unique project came from Teresa’s initial meeting with Martin in 2013 when he was speaking about the Evacuee Archive at a meeting for scholars interested in the University’s Collection Based Research programme:

 I became particularly curious about the Evacuee Archive through my meetings with Martin. His willingness to talk to me lies at the centre of the project. My interest about how the archive came into being was generated in discussion with him. The project attempts to tell a story of the archive’s growth through focusing on a series of edited audio fragments from our dialogue and on imagery that investigates and reflects on a small collection of significant objects. These key elements act as ‘guides’ on a sometimes light-hearted journey of exploration into a few of the possible reasons why this archive exists, and the relationships and attachments associated with it. This is why the title of the project incorporates the phrase ‘meditating on an archive’. It might also be possible to argue that the new material we have collected and drawn together as part of the project is an extension of the archive held at MERL, or perhaps that it creates a new gateway to it.

warchild-boatsmThe British Government scheme to evacuate children from cities during the Second World War began in September 1939. Children, usually without their parents, were sent to areas of Britain that were considered safer from bombing and the effects of war, these were often rural areas.  Our collection contains written memoirs, oral history interviews and research material relating to former evacuees and war-children.

In his career as a historian of Second World War child evacuation and lecturer at the University of Reading, Martin accumulated a wealth of research materials and documents which he generously donated to the Museum helping to make our Evacuee Archive the largest resource of its kind outside London’s Imperial War Museum.  While ‘War Child’ displays many of these records and artefacts in an accessible and unique format, the real power of the project is combining the materials collected with audio files, which exhibit its creator’s extensive knowledge of the collection and its origins.  As Martin’s daughter, Hannah, explains in an audio clip from ‘Meeting Five’ of War Child, her father is the archive and it is a rare treat for this kind of memory to be captured alongside the physical collection.

Understanding and exploring this aspect of our archive was however, a natural process for the creators of War Child:

A lot of my research and teaching focuses on the work of arts practitioners whose interests lie in communicating the experiences, memories and stories of children affected by war. ‘War war child - masksmchild’ builds on that research and teaching, in that it seeks to both point towards and respond to, what is a very important conflict-related resource for researchers, whatever their age and background – namely the Evacuee Archive. Seeking to understand and explain how war continues to affect children remains an ongoing and urgent necessity. Consulting and contributing to this ever-expanding archive can form part of that process.

When exploring the War Child site, I personally found Martin’s discussion of the evacuee luggage label of particular interest.  Not only does Martin describe how these labels were a symbol of the immense logistical feat achieved during the War, he also emphasises the dehumanising effect they had on the evacuated children.  Significantly, these labels were often kept as prized possessions and have become an evacuee’s own version of a military medal, with people proudly displaying their labels on Remembrance Day for the march past at the cenotaph.  Meanwhile, for Teresa, one of the most interesting artefacts from the collection is actually one that is missing:

 war child- dollsmI am really interested in the section about the doll. Arguably, I got disproportionately excited about the doll in the archive that cannot be found! No one really knows where it has gone, or when it went. Working through our disappointment, but also our, in retrospect, persistent questions about what it was like, what it would be like to find it and so on, could probably be a bit wearing for Martin at times, I think, and he was extremely patient. Nevertheless, those discussions feel very rich and complex now, because there was this strong sense of investigation about them, on everyone’s part. For me, that section feels in some important way as though it is at the centre of the work.

While War Child is a fantastic companion piece to our Evacuee Archive, it is also an illuminating archive in and of itself; a significant chapter of the story, containing records and memories of the experiences of those most closely involved in developing the collection and bringing it to MERL where it can be preserved for and shared with generations to come.

It would be great if people felt motivated to re-visit War Child over time. It contains a lot of material, and coming back to that in stages, as we have, can shed new light.

Written by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

Food takes first prize at the Berkshire Show

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, gives a recap of a busy weekend for The MERL at the Royal County of Berkshire Show. Photography by Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

I don’t think there’s anything quite like the Royal Berkshire Show. It’s a weird and wonderful melting pot of British culture. In amongst dancing sheep, pygmy goat competitions, Beatles-themed flower arrangements and wellies galore, The MERL was excited to take part in the University of Reading’s ‘Food Chain and Health’ stand.

Images of prize winning cattle and stunt motorcycles at the Royal Berkshire Show 2016. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

So much to see at the Berkshire Show.

Stunt Motorcycles

A large group of museum staff and volunteers worked across the weekend, having valuable conversations with show-goers about food and nutrition and raising awareness of The MERL and its upcoming reopening. We’re proud to have played an important role at the University’s stand, which was awarded ‘Best Trade Exhibit’ and ‘Best Large Trade Stand’.

University of Reading: Image of trophy and award given to University or Reading Stand at the 2016 Berkshire Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

University of Reading: Berkshire Show Champions! © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

From soil detective work, to cheese making and taste perception experiments, the university was keen to get people talking and thinking about the food chain and health by encouraging them to get involved with a variety of fun activities. To complement the university’s dairy nutrition research, The MERL had a great time helping children to design and make their own milk cartons. We also enjoyed running activities exploring themes from The Crunch – getting people talking about the importance of fibre in our diets, and the future of food. From this, we learned that most people aren’t great at working out which foods are a good source of dietary fibre, but they are very open to snacking on insects and to talking about how we might feed a growing population. One of the most rewarding aspects of the weekend was the high quality of conversations that were had about food.

An image of our edible insects area at the Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

Having a chat about edible insects and the future of food. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Greer Pester, a visual artist living between Mexico and Glasgow, developed a wonderful piece of food art throughout the weekend which proved to be one of the most engaging aspects of the stand. The work served to draw attention to the future of food and examined the uses, properties and history of amaranth.

Greer has been working with First Food Residency – an artist-led organisation focused on opening up debate about food through creative engagement with a variety of audiences. First Food Residency is currently actively involved in various projects at the university, and is even growing and using a beautiful crop of amaranth in one of The MERL’s experimental garden beds.

Image of child handling amaranth (A.K.A. 'love lies bleeding') at the Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

Getting up close and personal with amaranth (A.K.A. ‘love lies bleeding’). © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

It was fascinating to hear about how amaranth – also known as ‘love lies bleeding’ – was once a staple in the Aztec diet, but was banned by the Spanish conquistadors for its use in rituals, where sculptures were made from popped amaranth seeds, human sacrificial blood and honey. The subsequent decline in popularity of amaranth and its recent resurgence as a nutrition-packed ‘superfood’ demonstrates how our eating habits change over time and will continue to evolve in the future.

Drawing inspiration from amaranth’s rich history, Greer sculpted an Aztec-style pyramid from popped amaranth seeds, which worked as a sort of altar to food. Visitors were invited to make their own contributions in the form of paper offerings which were pinned to the pyramid. In this way, people of all ages and backgrounds were able to share their thoughts, wishes and pledges centred on food, and to share their favourite foods worthy of an altar.

Image of Greer Pester working on the amaranth pyramid sculpture at the start of the day. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Greer at work. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Image of a child pinning a paper offering to the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for The First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for The First Food Residency.

Image of a close up view of the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Image of Greer and visitors working on the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

It was fitting that the work appeared towards the exit of the University’s marquee, leaving people in the right frame of mind to reflect on the sacred qualities of food and to consider how they might cultivate a more positive relationship with food, health and nature.

Image of the completed amaranth sculpture entitled: 'When your love lies bleeding squish it into joy'. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

The finished piece, entitled: ‘When your love lies bleeding squish it into joy’. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency

If you missed The MERL at the Berkshire Show, don’t forget to catch us at our Grand Opening Festival on 22 October.