Our Country Lives update

Can you believe it’s Autumn already? Since our last update in May we’ve had an extremely busy Summer finishing our research, laying cement and visiting farmers. Here’s a round-up:

1. We’ve had exciting new research into our objects, such as this shepherd’s surprising connection to Thomas Beecham of Beecham’s pills.

Henry Beecham's walking stick

Henry Beecham’s walking stick

 

2. We’ve finished the building of our new extensions, and we’ve already christened our Introduction Space with a McMillan Coffee morning!

It may not look like much, but  our extensions will give us much-needed room for exhibitions and events!

It may not look like much, but our extensions will give us much-needed room for exhibitions and events!

 

3. To make the MERL more relevant to visitors old and new we’ve continued recruiting for our Student, Family and Countryside Forums. This is so we can make sure we’re presenting as true and balanced a picture of the countryside as possible. If you’re interested in helping us tell the story of the English rural life, please email us at: merl@reading.ac.uk

Anne and Frank beer and milk

 

4. We’ve just about finished writing the labels for all of our galleries. Have you ever tried condensing the story of the English countryside into 150 words or less? It’s certainly a challenge but one we think we’ve met, and we can’t wait to show you what we’ve written.

IMG_9504

 

5. Our cross-collections Tumblr blog was recognised as a Trending Blog by Tumblr’s own staff – give it a visit to find out why we deserved it.

One of our many Tumblr GIFs

One of our many Tumblr GIFs

 

6. We now know exactly what our galleries will be, what will be in them and what stories and facts we want to share with you. We have a rich variety of ways we’re going to explore English rural life in the new MERL, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates…

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7. We’ve begun a partnership with the Royal Berkshire Hospital in which we are using museum artifacts to help treat dementia. Discussing historic ways of life through objects and photographs is a wonderful way to bring back happy memories to those with dementia, and can help boost patients’ memories and help make sense of past events.

Reminscance-therapy

Audience Development Manager Phillippa at the Royal Berks. Photo Credit: GetReading.

 

8. We’ve also begun work on making the MERL far more inclusive of Reading’s local communities. We’ve had the pleasure of talking to Katesgrove Community Association, Reading Chinese Association, The Greater Reading Nepalese Community Association, The Rising Sun and so many more. We hope to establish a variety of projects such as community allotments, exhibitions and film projects.

chinese as

 

9. You may also have seen us out and about, as we’ve been taking the Museum to the people while we’ve been closed. We’ve been talking to our local communities at East Reading Festival, winning prizes at the Berkshire Show and discussing sustainability at the Reading Town Meal. Keep a track of what we’re doing on our Events page.

Our fabulous volunteer Jenny at the Berkshire Show.

Our fabulous volunteer Jenny at the Berkshire Show.

 

There is plenty more we could tell you, but we’re keeping a few things up our sleeve as we prepare for our re-opening. To keep updated on our progress subscribe to this blog or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram!

What have we been up to? An Our Country Lives update

This gallery contains 9 photos.

A common reaction from people when we tell them that our galleries are closed is ‘Does that mean you’re all on holiday?’ Well, we’ve actually been intensely busy behind the scenes since November creating the new MERL! Here’s a round-up of some of the things we’ve been doing:   1. While the galleries have been closed, […]

Town and Country: William Shenstone & Leasowes Park

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

Halesowen's Leasowes Park in the winter.

Halesowen’s Leasowes Park in the winter.

How interdependent are town and country? How do they rely on each other, and where does one end and the other begin? It is a theme we’re exploring in great detail for Our Country Lives and, considering around 90% of English people live in urban areas, a very relevant one. I wasn’t expecting, however, that my own town would ever factor into the discussion. Halesowen is part of the Dudley borough in the West Midlands. It is decidedly post-industrial and urban, despite sitting on the edge of a greenbelt. However, it also has a wooded, scenic park at its heart which began as one of the first landscaped estates in the country, perhaps even the world. Begun in 1743, Leasowes Park has managed to weather industrial revolution (including having a canal run through it), its encirclement by the West Midlands conurbation, a golf course development and the infamous town planners of the mid-20th century.

An aerial view of Halesowen, with Leasowes Park in the upper right corner.

An aerial view of Halesowen, with Leasowes Park in the upper right corner.

It was designed and built by William Shenstone (1714-1763), who began modelling the Leasowes estate on scenes inspired by pastoral poetry when he inherited the land as a dairy farm. His ashes are now contained in a sizable urn displayed in the Norman parish church of St John, and for his trouble also has a Wetherspoons named after him. Shenstone was among the first to conceive of a garden as a curated journey, pacing walks around the estate with built features and enriching the views with quotations from classical authors as well as his own writings (we have collections of his work in the University’s Special Collections). His Elegy XXI, written in 1746, could very well have reflected his vision for Leasowes:

Lord of my time, my devious path I bend

Thro’ fringy woodland, or smooth-shaven lawn,

Or pensile grove, or airy cliff ascend,

And hail the scene by Nature’s pencil drawn.[1]

The University of Reading holds Shenstone's books of poetry.

The University of Reading holds Shenstone’s books of poetry.

Leasowes still contains fringy woodland, smooth-shaven lawns and pensile groves, but he combined this natural landscaping with romantic structures such as urns, bridges and even a ruined Priory, constructed from the rose-red sandstone nicked from the ruins of Halesowen Abbey. Visitors came from far and wide to visit this landscape garden, helped in part by printed engravings which attracted figures such as Prime Minister William Pitt, Benjamin Franklin and American president Thomas Jefferson. A friend of Shenstone wrote:

‘Born to a very small paternal estate, which his ancestors cultivated for a subsistence, he embellished it for his amusement; and that in so good a taste, as to attract the notice, not only of the neighbouring gentry and nobility, but almost of every person in the kingdom, who either had, or affected to have, any relish of rural beauties: so that no one came to see the noble and delightful seat of Lord Lyttelton at Hagley, who did not visit with proportionable delight the humbler charms of the Leasowes.’[2]

4505015163_8729283651_zThe estate also had a profound effect on the burgeoning English landscape style, and particularly so on Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose tercentenary we will be celebrating in 2016. Landscape Architecture holds particular interest for MERL as we hold the Landscape Institute’s archives. The Institute was founded only in 1929, and work to improve the planning and design of the urban and rural landscape, so we’re delighted to hold their fascinating archives and library.

Leasowes remains a popular attraction for the local area, providing an oasis of natural calm sandwiched between dual carriageways. It was on one of these dual carriageways recently when I had the juxtaposed views of the Black Country sprawl spread out on my left, and on my right a horse grazing in woodland. Horses are a recent addition thanks to a recent HLF grant that has brought the park back to its original form, restoring paths, cascades and reintroducing cattle as well as horses.

A 1748 engraving of Leasowes Park, and the recent restoration of the cascades on the right.

A 1748 engraving of Leasowes Park, and the recent restoration of the cascades on the right.

It is in this way that the Leasowes estate encapsulates for me the strange relationship between town and country. Shenstone’s designs are an idealised, man-made manifestation of landscape, and one which pre-empts the long development of English gardens and country estates. When built, Leasowes was an escape into pastoral fantasy but now, trapped in a town, it is for many people the only countryside they know. The idea of the countryside can mean many things to different people – it could be a place of work, a place of relaxation, a place of sport; it could be down the road, it could be half an hour away; it could be local farmland, it could just be a local park; and for some few people, it is something they have only ever seen on television. Exploring what the countryside means to different people through how we view and perceive it is something we are exploring in great detail as part of Our Country Lives, and for me Leasowes Park is a perfect case study.

[1] Shenstone, W., ‘Elegy XXI’, The Poetical Works of William Shenstone, Esq., London: Alexander Donaldson (1775).

[2] Graves, R., Recollection of some particulars in the life of the late William Shenstone, Esq., London: J Dodsley (1788).

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.

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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.

 

Our Country Lives update: How we research

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

You may have noticed that we’ve been a bit quiet recently about our HLF-funded redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. This is because we’re waiting for a response from the Heritage Lottery Fund due on June 13th (fingers crossed), but also because a lot of us have been busy catching up on other projects such as Reading Connections, Countryside21 and Sense of Place. country lives logoLast week, however, has seen the project kick-started again with a couple of meetings focusing on how we should be researching the stories and objects we want to put into the new displays, as well as how we should be marketing the new MERL. We’re also reaching a stage where I can give more detailed project updates, and this series of posts will probably focus more on the research-side of things, as well as some behind-the-scenes of how we go about delivering such a huge project as Our Country Lives. To recap our research so far, we spent a lot the 2013 winter and spring of 2014 getting to grips with the huge amount of objects and archives in the MERL collection. As well as trying to make sure we’re representing the countryside in all of its complexity and diversity, we have to make sure that we’re choosing the best objects and archives for the job, backed up by solid and current research.

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

The stories we want to tell about rural life are sometimes driven by our objects, archival documents, video footage, or other types of media. Sometimes a problem can be that we do not have any objects to illustrate stories we want to tell, but in our case our problem is having too many objects. Did you know we have around 26,000 objects, archives covering 4,500 linear metres and a library of over 50,000 volumes? It’s obviously a good thing that we have such a large and diverse collection, but this is also a double-edged sword. Our museum has no off-site storage, and so everything has to fit into the galleries, mezzanine storage, and a new duplicate store which is being built at the back. Because of this, much of our work so far has been trying to find a place for all of our objects so that our designers could decide where to put essential things such as walls and doorways.

This is one of the reasons why we are putting our wagons in a line along the north wall; as well as being a new and interesting way of exploring this nationally important collection, it is also one of the only ways to fit them all into the galleries. The only other option was to have a few wagons in every single gallery, which we thought would overshadow the other collections. As for the rest of the collection, we have been combing through our catalogue and placing our objects into the galleries and storylines best suited for them. You can see an example of one of our spreadsheets below, which will be the base from which we decide where and why to put our objects, including how they fit in with key messages, generic learning outcomes and storylines. We will also work from these lists to engage in more detailed research on specific objects and subjects contained within the new galleries. The storylines and topics we want to explore are by no means final, however, and so we will also be spending a lot of time in the coming months ironing out our topics, consulting with experts, and having lengthy debates about what is in and what is out.

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

Essentially, the planning and delivery an almost entirely new museum is difficult and complicated, but it is also a rewarding and refreshing experience. If you would like to know a bit more about this aspect of the project or the project as a whole, feel free to drop me an email at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk , and keep an eye out for future updates.

Our Country Lives project submitted!

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

5MERL’s HLF project Our Country Lives reached an important milestone last Monday when we submitted our bid for second stage funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).  We will find out whether we have been successful in June.

Our consultants for the design of the new galleries, GuM, provided us with some fantastic visuals to accompany the bid which you can see below. However, most of our plans are still tightly under wraps until we finalise everything and, if we do get the go-ahead, start building in Autumn later this year, with our re-opening then due in late Summer 2015. Our Library and the University Special Collections will be open as usual.  Our events programme will continue until we close, and are currently thinking about possible activities and outreach to take place during our closure period.

A mock-up of how our wagons may be displayed

A mock-up of how our wagons may be displayed

We are looking forward to sharing far more about this project in the coming months, as we have exciting plans for new projects, activities and community events which will accompany our re-display. The designs and thinking behind our new galleries is also looking spectacular, so you should definitely keep an eye on this space for sneak-peeks and previews of what you can expect in the new MERL.

You should also keep an eye out for opportunities for how you can get involved – our local community and wider audiences are at the heart of our re-display and there will be many chances to influence how we explore English rural life.

If you would like more information on the project please contact Adam at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk

 

Keep up! Stakeholder consultation on MERL’s Our Country Lives project

MERL Curator of Collections and Engagement, Isabel Hughes, brings us up to date with progress on the Our Country Lives project

Our project plans are developing quite quickly now and one of the challenges is to keep all our various stakeholders informed including our volunteers, neighbours and other interested parties in the University.  Last week we held two sessions to update everyone on the how the project is developing.  About 40 people attended and heard presentations from myself and Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator.

We were able to explain the broad rationale of the project – to create more space around the building in order to improve both the displays and visitor facilities.

OCL plans

We are working with museum design consultants to create exciting new galleries

 

Alongside the redisplay of the galleries there will be a full programme of activities to attract new and existing visitors to MERL.

Planning for closure is just as important as planning for the reopening of MERL.  There are various important dates for us; 24 February 2014 is the submission date for our Heritage Lottery Fund.  We shall hear the outcome some time in June or early July.  If successful, that would give us 8 – 10 weeks to get ready for contractors arriving on site.  We can’t guarantee an exact start date for construction work but we would aim to offer a full programme of activities over the summer and would close the Museum from about October 2014.

During the closure we would keep the Special Collections, including the reading room open to the public.  We are thinking as well about events we might be able to offer as outreach around Reading.  The main casualty of this phase is likely to be the garden which may be used for contractors’ huts and would definitely be out of bounds to visitors. We are planning to redesign the garden to reflect the themes of the redisplay, however.

There is a lot of work to do to plan for reopening which is likely to take place in late Summer 2015.  We aim to offer an exciting set of launch events, underpinned by a revamped website and publicity materials.

At last week’s meetings our stakeholders seemed very positive about our plans and offered useful suggestions for enhancing things or forging new partnerships.

As you can imagine, the next couple of weeks before submitting our bid are going to be very busy for everyone at MERL, but we look forward to sharing more information over the coming months.

 

Our Country Lives project update: Activity planning

Isabel Hughes, MERL Curator, updates us on the work on the ‘Activity Plan’ for our Heritage Lottery Fund project

Earlier in the year, the Cultural Consulting Network was appointed to help MERL produce an activity plan as part of the Round 2 submission to the Heritage Lottery Fund for Our Country Lives.  The first section of an activity plan needs to address where an organisation is now.  MERL has gathered information about its visitors periodically but in order to present a current, rounded view of things now, a programme of audience research was set up over the summer.

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

 

Visitors views on the current galleries and the events and activities offered by MERL were gathered by a team of volunteers, led by Volunteer Co-ordinator, Rob Davies.  (Read his Volunteers Voice posts here) Views were also sought from the volunteers themselves, including their motivation for participating in activity for MERL and Special Collections.  At a recent meeting Cultural Consulting Network reported back on the findings:

Our adult visitors are split 65% male, 35% female.  A huge majority (91%) are local and come from very local postcodes or within a 30 minute drive time.  Many are retired or middle aged.  We receive some visits from international or domestic tourists but very few from people from a black and minority ethnic background.  All our surveys flagged up a significant number of first time visitors but quite a view have visited several times and could be seen as ‘regulars’.  Dwell time in the museum is relatively short and that includes our visiting our temporary exhibitions.  MERL is increasingly popular with families, who again largely come from the local area or somewhere within a 30 minute drive time.  A significant proportion of children coming to events regularly are under seven.  We attract students to the Museum, particular those pursuing Museum Studies modules, 50% of whom are female, with a mix of ages achieved through a balance of mature students, most of them from a broad UK-wide catchment and very few foreign students.  Amongst academics visiting there is a broad gender balance and a wider age range which includes some people with disabilities.  Specialist groups come from further afield and are more or less mixed in age or gender, depending on the subject.

So far, so probably to be expected.  The interesting point that Cultural Consulting Network have picked out relates to motivations for visiting.  Our visitors tend to have a broad interest in museums and learning about rural history, but the number that connect this to an object-related experience is relatively low.  At least half the visitors are looking for a good day out and to share their experience with others.  A few were at the Museum as they were visiting friends and family.  About 10% came from the Royal Berkshire Hospital over the road, often visiting family members who were sick. There was no expectation amongst visitors that they would see anything that would connect with their own personal history.

When talking to volunteers some similar patterns emerged.  It was interesting that the percentages were reversed – more volunteers at MERL are female than male.  They were motivated by the experience they had; working with skilled, friendly and helpful staff.  However, they were not particularly motivated to volunteer because of the subject matter of the collections.

As a Designated museum with nationally important collections and boasting a really object-rich museum gallery, it is puzzling how visitors seem to be missing the connection with the objects.  Cultural Consulting Network are advising that making the experience with objects more vital and relevant must be at the heart of the redevelopment.  The challenge is to identify the stories that provide ‘a way in’ and make that object-rich environment more engaging.  That is for the next stage in our planning…and we’d love to hear your ideas!

 

 

MERL at the Museums Association conference #1: Our Curator’s view

In the first of a series of posts from our colleagues who attended the MA conference recently, Isabel Hughes, Curator of Collections and Engagement, summarises her talk on ‘Collecting Cultures’ and reflects on the conference as a whole…

The Museums Association Conference is the biggest gathering of museums people in the country.  Despite the cutbacks in the sector, this year there were 800 people in attendance.  The bulk of the sessions were divided between the themes of The Emotional Museum, The Therapeutic Museum and Tomorrow’s People.  Day one was rather taken up for me by the emotions involved in chairing one session, led with aplomb by our Volunteer Co-ordinator, Rob Davies, then dashing into the room next door to speak at a second one that was part of a formal announcement of a new round of Heritage Lottery Funds‘ Collecting Cultures programme which MERL has been part of for the last five years. I had been asked to share our experience of the programme, which has allowed MERL curatorial staff to acquire over 400 artefacts ranging from the clothes of a Newbury bypass protester to a Series 1 Land Rover!

MERL's Series 1 Landrover

MERL’s Series 1 Landrover

Our project, Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures, involved a number of us learning how to acquire through conventional means such as auctions, dealers and existing contacts but also to get acquainted with ebay and other online auction sites.  We had to think laterally about how to collect to show themes of the twentieth century such as the growth of the suburbs and the technology of intensive farming.  Through collecting more printed ephemera we were able to address protest including those at Greenham Common as well as those led by the Countryside Alliance.  Our project has heavily influenced how we think about collecting today – what was once seen as outside our remit, has often been reconsidered as we look more at the cultural and social significance of artefacts from the late 20th century.

Greenham Common poster 1982

Greenham Common poster 1982

My presentation was sandwiched between a rounding up of the first phase of Collecting Cultures and an announcement of a new round being open for applications.  Delegates were keen to know how our project had been conceived and developed.  One questioner from the floor was disappointed that he had not seen innovation in collecting.  This was puzzling for us, as we feel that we have been able to think anew about this, not least in the way we consulted in the galleries and via our blog on what visitors would like us to collect.  However, we also were clear that responsible collecting must be linked to an overall policy and we did not see this programme as being designed to ‘break the mould’ of that document.  When collecting, curators must always have an eye on the past as well as the future.

My speaking duties out of the way, I was able to sample the main themes properly which included a session on how different parts of the UK are planning to commemorate the First World War.  In Ireland the anniversaries will include the Easter Rising and the arrival of the Black and Tans.  There will definitely be a challenge in terms of therapeutic truth and reconciliation here.  I also attended a session that looked at what the future museums profession might look like.  All the panellists felt that the term ‘profession’ might not be needed and that we would be looking at a far wider range of skills.  The curators of the future would be truly international, very possibly trained in China, highly mobile with a working life consisting entirely of fixed term contracts.

MA Conference is always a good time to renew museum acquaintances, share the museum gossip and gather free stationery from the exhibition stands.  At an early evening reception I was told by one company that their prize of a mini ipad was definitely worth going for.  If I could just think of a suitable icon for my museum, the odds were strong for me to win it.  In the event, I went out for a meal instead.  The Conference also offers great opportunities to visit sites out of normal hours.  I managed to fit in a breakfast viewing of the powerful exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery of work by photojournalist, Tim Hetherton.  “You Never See Them Like This” was a remarkable set of images taken whilst he was lived alongside American soldiers stationed in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan.  Captured asleep, the soldiers looked like small, vulnerable boys, instantly recognisable to their mothers.  Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya in 2011.