Chalk or Cheese? Winner announced!

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

Kent single

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

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


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

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

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

Kate Gill conserving the wall hangings.

Kate Gill conserving the wall hangings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How we went viral: a good story, good luck and good friends

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

It all started with a story that, five or ten years ago, would have remained within the four walls of the museum and gone no further: our assistant curator found a dead mouse in a Victorian mouse trap.


The trap was behind a glass case in our store; it was not baited and it was not on display. And out of the thousands of tasty objects the mouse could have chosen to call both home and dinner, it zoned in on one of the few objects designed to kill it.

As a humane trap, the mouse is meant to be found and then released. Tragically, our mouse would have died a lonely death. Since we check our collection for pests regularly, and don’t expect our traps to be achieving their original purpose, this mouse was simply unlucky to get trapped in a time-frame between check-ups.

We thought the story was interesting and posted about it on our blog and Tumblr. Fast forward five days and it has become global, viral news.

See our other blog post for more information about the trap and an update on what we’re doing with the mouse.

Interest in our Tumblr spiked, and then rapidly returned to normal levels.

And we’re not exaggerating.

Since the original blog post, we have been interviewed by the BBC and the Canadian public radio broadcaster CBC. After featuring on BuzzFeed the story of our mouse rippled throughout the internet, ending up on The Daily Mail website, ABC, The Huffington PostI F***ing Love Science and more. We trended on Tumblr, where our post has over 3,000 notes, and have been chosen as a feature of their History Spotlight category. We made the front page of Reddit, and our imgur gallery has been viewed 374,552 times. Our blog has had 67,521 views since the original post, more than the past two years put together.

Not bad for our debut on BuzzFeed.

Not bad for our BuzzFeed debut.

We thought everything had died down by Sunday, but then news started trickling in that we were trending on Facebook across the world. And not only that, but that we were trending higher than the SuperBowl, North Korea and…Beyonce:



Suffice to say, we've never had it so good on Facebook.

Suffice to say, we’ve never had it so good on Facebook.

So what was the viral timeline of events? It all started with our original blog post, which was also cross-posted to Tumblr, and from there:

Our mouse made the 'front page of the internet', better known as Reddit.

Our mouse made the ‘front page of the internet’, better known as Reddit.

Needless to say, there does not seem to be one recipe for going viral. What seems essential, however, is recognising when you have a good story, writing it well and having nice pictures.

From there it took getting our story in front of the right person – in this case Buzzfeed’s Hayley Campbell – and then watching the dominoes of ‘clickbait’ websites fall. We also nudged the story along, soliciting a retweet from a ‘power user’ of Twitter and Tumblr, Neil Gaiman, as well as posting updates and providing different angles on the story, such as our image gallery on Reddit.

We were lucky that we had been building our expertise and capacity in social media for some years, meaning we could hit the ground running when it became obvious the story was a hit. Our online network of museum professionals and journalists was essential to its success; without Nick Booth alerting Hayley Campbell to the story, it may not have kicked off in the first place.

However, before we publish blogs from now on, we’ll definitely be asking ourselves: ‘Would we be happy if this went viral?’ In hindsight, we were glad to have explained the ethical and practical issues involved with having a dead mouse in a museum object, as well as why and how it may have happened. Trust is very important to a museum, and if this story had gone viral without us considering the deeper issues we may have suffered immense damage to our reputation. There are many other stories about the important work we do as a Museum which we’d preferred to have gone viral, but nevertheless we hope those who saw the story have learnt a bit more about conservation, the continuing relevance of museum objects and how even the smallest of tragedies can captivate the world.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

The mouse is currently being prepared by our Conservator.

155-year old mouse trap claims its latest victim

After logging onto their computers today, staff here at the MERL were greeted by an unusual email from the Assistant Curator:

‘There appears to be a dead mouse in this mousetrap…’

It began.

‘…which is not described as being there on the database.’


So, this retired rodent had managed to sneak past University of Reading security, exterior doors and Museum staff,  and clambered its way up into our Store. Upon finding itself there it would have found the promised land; a mouse paradise laid before it full of straw, wood and textiles. Then, out of thousands of objects, it chose for its home the very thing designed to kill it some 150 years ago: a mouse trap.

The trap itself was not baited, but this did not stop our mouse from wriggling inside and, finding itself trapped, meet its demise. The trap was manufactured by Colin Pullinger & Sons of Silsey, West Sussex and although we don’t know the exact date this one was made, the trap itself was patented in 1861. It is a multi-catch trap with a see-saw mechanism, and you can see its object record here. It is known as a ‘Perpetual Mouse Trap’ and proudly declares that it ‘will last a lifetime’. How apt.

The trap is described as 'Perpetual' and it certainly is that.

The trap is described as ‘Perpetual’ and it certainly is that.

Pests are, of course, a perpetual menace in any museum. Curators and conservators are always alert for the tell-tale signs of moths, beetles and rodents which feast on the organic materials we hold in store. Hygiene and regular cleaning are a first line of defence, as are glazed cases. Objects are also treated before storage or display to ensure anything lurking within is killed. And while our most vulnerable objects have always been cased – such as clothing and leather – the rest of our stored collection made of sturdier wood and metal was only fully glazed over last year. This mouse may have snuck into the trap before this glazing, or otherwise managed to get in while construction work has been carried out for the Museum’s redevelopment.


We have traps set for pests, but we can never catch everything all of the time. This mouse managed to sign its own death warrant before it could do any more damage, the extent of which was only a nibbled label. We will also have to determine whether this mouse was a scout or part of a larger family. Luckily, because the collection is heavily used it is often only a matter of time before any kind of infestation is noticed and nipped in the bud. This mouse was found when our Assistant Curator was in the Stores selecting objects for use in an interdisciplinary research session on the subject of ‘Animals at Reading’. Our current MERL Fellow, Professor Karen Sayer, is also particularly interested in traps as part of her ongoing research into rats and pest control and regularly views our collection.

The other end of the trap, sans mouse.

The other end of the trap, sans mouse.

For the moment, however, the mouse remains in the trap while we decide what to do with it. One option is a dignified burial, another is to desiccate it or have it prepared to remain as a permanent feature of the mouse trap for our new displays. We’ll let you know what we decide.

Our Country Lives update: Bringing our wagons down to earth

Alongside finalising gallery layouts, coming up with exciting ideas for interactive displays and filling in foundations for our extensions, our biggest update for you this week is the removal of our wagons from their monorail.

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

wagon move 1

wagon move2












We managed to finish the job in one day with the help of a specialist removal company, a fork-lift truck and much bated breath. If you haven’t been to the Museum before, for the last ten years we have had several wagons raised from the floor on a monorail running down the length of the galleries. Each wagon was attached to its own beam which was first removed from its supports and brought to the floor; once the wagon’s own wheels were supporting it, the beam was then lowered from the wagon itself and taken away. One main worry was that since the wagons have been off their wheels for so long, and their wood so desiccated from the dry atmosphere of our building, that they may be a little brittle when on the floor again. They all, however, came down without a hitch and are now waiting with the rest of the collection to be redisplayed.


The reasoning behind their removal is that the wagons currently take up precious space in the rafters where we would like to build a new gallery for our ploughs. The Wagon Walk, where the majority of our wagons and carts will now be, will allow us to show our nationally important collection at its best. As well as exploring the craftsmanship and technical complexity of a wagon’s construction, we will also be delving into personal stories of those behind the wagons and how they used them. We will reveal how these wagons are intimately tied to their landscapes but also to local building traditions, and how the geography dictates the size, shape and construction of every single one of our unique wagons.



Changing Faces: Dismantling the old Museum

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

The Museum has now been closed a little over two weeks, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy behind the scenes. Although visitors to our Archive & Library, steered through the shop to our tranquil Reading Room, may be entirely unaware of the scale of the work being done to strip away the old materials and objects from our galleries.


The changes within the galleries has been quite dramatic..

The physical work has been a massive logistical challenge and all credit should go to our Conservation Team, which is composed of our Conservator, a couple of staff members and volunteers (plus other colleagues when they have a moment). MERL is fairly unusual for a Museum of its size because we don’t have an offsite Store where we can keep our objects while work is ongoing. Although we considered hiring external storage we didn’t think our large objects, sturdy as they look, would survive the move without being damaged. As such, everything that is small has been removed, recorded and moved upstairs while we play a delicate game of Tetris with the remaining larger objects we cannot carry upstairs, or which we simply don’t have the room for.

So far we've managed to fill two skips with refuse!

So far we’ve managed to fill two skips with refuse!

Objects have been carefully packed into one side of the Museum.

Objects have been carefully packed into one side of the Museum.

As everything gets tidied away, however, it has become very clear that our building, constructed in 2004, is now a blank slate for our redevelopment. Without the objects we are left with grey floors, white walls and open spaces which we are eagerly filling with new stories and themes on English rural life.

Work in the galleries is almost ready for the builders to move into our garden and begin construction on the extensions to the Museum, which we foresee  being finished in Spring 2015. After that our fit-out contractors will take their place and fill the Museum with plinths, cases, signs and objects ready for our re-opening, which may take until early 2016.

Don’t worry though, we will be keeping you regularly updated here on the blog, tracking both the progress of the work within the galleries as well as some of the conservation work that goes on in a project of this size.


Conservation Diary 2: Repairing the damaged and dry

As promised, I am back with some more exciting and fresh updates. Good progress has been made!

The first week flew by in the setting up of and preliminary preparations for the conservation project of the first 1951 wall hanging. In the second week I felt myself drifting off far away, swayed by the humming sound of the controlled variable suction vacuum cleaner as I continued to rhythmically surface-clean both the front and back of the wall hanging. I felt completely in tune with myself. I pictured myself in the beautiful countryside of Kent and imagined how farming life would have been back in the 1950s, helped by how the resist-dyed wall hanging has a plethora of so many vibrant colours.

As the conservation of the wall hanging progressed, two further tests were undertaken – the first to determine the dye fastness of every different colour used in the hanging when exposed to moisture – the second to assess the effectiveness of humidification treatment in relaxing creases…


Kate is performing the humidification test and the dye fastness test of every different colour


Then, Kate also examined the two holes in the wall hanging. The first was a small square like shaped with frayed edges shown below in the picture on one of the orange Oast Houseroofsand the other was a bigger hole on the green patch in a more elongated shape.


Conservator Kate Gill examining an area of loss in the hanging



The conservator is making a template on one area of loss in preparation of the conservation support


There were some old repairs on the centre seam which were causing damage to the wall hanging. Kate thoroughly examined its condition and decided that the best treatment to preserve it was to remove the old repairs.


Detail of damaging repairs along centre seam


I shall leave you to digest the same excitement that I felt while assisting on this unique project.

Watch this space for more interesting insights into the conservation of the 1951 wall hangings… until then you are very welcome to come and meet us at the Museum of English Rural Life where you can see the real action happening!

Conservation Diary: Week 1 on our 1951 Wall Hanging

My name is Nitisha Ramrekha-Heeramun and over the next few weeks  I will be blogging about the conservation of two large and colourful resist-dyed textile wall hangings produced by the renowned artist, Michael O’Connell, for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

I started volunteering at the Museum of English Rural Life in August 2013 under the supervision of Fred the MERL conservator, during which time I have picked up valuable practical conservation skills and knowledge. I feel privileged to have the opportunity of working closely with our contracted specialist textile conservator, Kate Gill, and assisting with the conservation of the wall hangings.  Professionally, I have a legal background, but my real passion is to preserve and care for our cultural heritage and I aspire to have a fulfilling career in this field.

The idea of blogging about the conservation of the two wall hangings came about when I felt the need to make you, the audience, re-live the experience of being in such close proximity with and handling such well-guarded artefacts. I hope that you will enjoy reading through this blog as much as I enjoy writing about it!

I was thrown completely in at the deep end on the very first day! It was absolutely fascinating to marvel at the splendour and magnificence of the first wall hanging as Fred and Kate carefully unwrapped it on this huge white table.

Our very large workspace is made from 30 individual tables.

Our very large workspace is made from 30 individual tables.

There are seven wall hangings in the collection and each measure just under seven by four meters. I could not help but think of the countless hours and effort gone into the creation of such a beautiful textile. Everyone stared in awe from the first floor of the gallery from where you can have a panoramic view of the wall hanging. The hanging depicts the county of Kent.

The aim of the conservation project is to make the hanging sufficiently stable for display.  Following conservation, the hanging will be hung by means of Velcro™ and supported on a sloping display board protected behind glass within a bespoke display case. A lot of work will need to be done before this can safely happen.

A year ago Kate carried out an initial condition assessment and suggested an outline conservation treatment plan.

The Kent wall hanging was chosen as the first because it had more problem areas, like an inappropriate early repaired seam, which caused damage and two small holes with frayed edges.

Kent unveiled!

Kent unveiled!

So, we were all set to go! I could not help feeling the rush of adrenaline down my spine as I was about to become physically involved in the conservation and preservation of such a massive piece of art.


The initial preparation stages

Due to sixty years of being stored rolled up the textile was severely distorted and creased. Firstly, Kate carefully aligned the hanging as best as possible to the edge of the table and thoroughly examined the fabric and condition of the hanging; documenting and noting down areas of weakness and analysing and further evaluating the different treatment options available.

I learnt quite quickly that forward-planning is crucial in this line of work, especially when treating such a large object – it felt like having a plan of attack on a battle field! You have to think of every possibility in detail and most importantly, consider the best and worst case scenarios that could occur and be prepared for it! This initial stage of forward planning, although time-consuming, is of paramount importance and also allows for the workload to be streamlined at the later stages.

First things first… Kate Gill, establishes a registration point along the uneven edge of the hanging to determine the positioning of the Velcro™ support mechanism.


First things first… Kate Gill establishes a registration point along the uneven edge of the hanging to determine the positioning of the Velcro™ support mechanism.




An image of the hanging was marked out in one metre squares to help keep track of progress.




Following this, the hanging was surface cleaned on both sides using a variable controlled suction vacuum cleaner…a process that took most of my whole week. Ouch, my poor knees!


Keep tuned for more on the conservation of this hanging! It is also free to view the Hangings as they are being conserved within the gallery.