Untouchable England: this term’s seminar series

Intangible Cultural Heritage is a growing area of interest in the field of heritage and museum studies. However, the UK is yet to ratify the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Do we have intangible heritage in the UK and “how can we best explore stories, performances, poetry, folklore, mythology, and skills and knowledge of rural people?”

The Museum of English Rural Life’s lunchtime talks offer fresh perspectives and thought-provoking content about how different forms of intangible heritage might help us explore and better understand rural England. As the term progresses I’ll report back on the talks and flag up interesting projects and articles regarding intangible heritage in England and the rest of the UK.

In an ideal world we’d like you to come along in person. Seminars run 1-2pm for the MERL seminars. Each event takes place in the Conference Room at MERL. Please register in advance if you plan to come along, or contact us on the day to check there are still spaces available.

Stave dancers

Somerset Morris: West Country Friendly Society Stave Dancers

Chloe Metcalfe, Independent Researcher

  • Tuesday 21st January
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

Somerset Morris has performed stave dancing across England and further afield for over 30 years. Using antique Friendly Society stave heads they perform dances resurrected from old minute books as well as newer creations. Whilst referring to the staves themselves, this talk concentrates on the team’s relationship and passion for this traditional and localised dance form. The talk was co-written with Barbara Butler, founding member of Somerset Morris

An informal pop-up display of Friendly Society pole heads (staves) from MERL’s extensive holdings will be available for viewing in the mezzanine store immediately after the Seminar.

Find out more about Chloe Metcalfe and Somerset Morris


The Full English: unlocking hidden treasures of England’s cultural heritage

Malcolm Taylor, Library Director, English Folk Dance and Song Society

  • Tuesday 28th January
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

The Full English is the biggest project the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) has undertaken since the building of its headquarters in 1930. It has created and made accessible an enormous digital archive of early twentieth century English folk arts manuscripts. In this talk the Director of the Society’s Library explores how the digitisation and cataloguing process has been enhanced through rich programmes of community engagement and creativity.

There will be a pop-up exhibition in the Museum mezzanine store immediately after the Seminar, offering the chance to see a hobby horse costume with connections to EFDSS as well as other relevant material from the collections.

Find out more about England’s Cultural Heritage


Basketry skills as intangible cultural heritage

Greta Bertram, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 4th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

The state of traditional craftsmanship has changed dramatically during the last century. While craft skills are recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, in the UK there is little public awareness of such approaches. Using the example of basketry, this talk will examine the idea of heritage craft, explore values that basketmakers ascribe to their work, and look to the future of intangible craft skills.

The Seminar will be followed by an informal pop-up exhibition of baskets in the Museum’s mezzanine store and a chance to talk about MERL’s current Stakeholders project.

Find out more about intangible heritage on the MERL project blog.


Ghosts and belief: religion and folklore

Dr Paul Cowdell, University of Hertfordshire / The Folklore Society

  • Tuesday 11th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

Barely anywhere in England lacks a ghost story. This is not just a collection of local legends, but points to a complicated history of eschatological thought. This seminar, based on recent fieldwork, examines that folk eschatology. It will look at its interaction with more institutionally expressed religious beliefs, and explores the implications of the apparent disjuncture between them.

Find out more about Dr Paul Cowdell and The Folklore Society


“- I catch them at intervals – “: Knowing and Not-Knowing in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

Dr Neil Cocks, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 18th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

In this seminar Dr Neil Cocks will be discussing issues of language and narration in the central, mystical chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows.’

An informal pop-up exhibition of different editions of the book will be available for the audience to enjoy immediately after the Seminar.

Find out more about Dr Neil Cocks


Sounds Familiar? Exploring British Accents and Dialects’

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Sociolinguistics, British Library

  • Tuesday 25th February
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

Jonnie Robinson is responsible for the Library’s extensive collection of sound recordings that capture social and regional varieties of English. This talk will introduce the Library’s audio collections, resources and services and present examples from the Library’s sound archives that document British English accents and dialects.

Find out more about Jonnie Robinson


The Museum of British Folklore: A new cultural venture

Simon Costin, followed by Obby Robinson

  • Tuesday 4th March
  • 1 to 2pm Simon Costin & 2 to 2.45pm Obby Robinson
  • Free
  • Register in advance

At the moment there is no dedicated institution that explores the full richness of British custom, superstition, and tradition. The Museum of British Folklore aims to address this need. In this talk Simon Costin shares progress to date, reflecting on how the project has gained momentum in its bid to provide a physical home for a heritage that is both tangible and intangible.

The Seminar will be followed by a poetry reading in the Museum’s gallery. Obby Robinson will read from his most recent collection-“The Witch-House of Canewdon and Other Poems”. These writings draw inspiration from, and loosely improvise upon, English folklore.

Find out more about Simon Costin


The Dark Monarch: Magic and modernity in British art

Professor Alun Rowlands, Department of Fine Art, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 11th March
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

In 2010, Tate St Ives mounted an exhibition exploring the influence of folklore, mysticism, mythology and the occult on modern British art. In this talk Professor Rowlands revisits a performance commissioned from folk dancers and mummers and discusses how art has been used as a vehicle to explore legend and landscape.

Find out more about Professor Alun Rowlands


MERL and the BBC: Rural re-enactment and gestural reconstruction in the 1950s

Dr Ollie Douglas, Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

  • Tuesday 18th March
  • 1 to 2pm
  • Free
  • Register in advance

MERL’s earliest curators rapidly adopted the techniques of public history in order to salvage a way of life seen to be disappearing and cement a technology-centred approach to the past. During the 1950s, their short set-piece re-enactments played a prominent role in television broadcast contexts. This talk explores how reconstructive approaches to rural objects provided insight into the less tangible world of past gestures and actions.

This Seminar will be followed by a small pop-up exhibition in the Museum’s mezzanine store featuring objects used in television recordings or with connections to radio.

Find out more about Dr Ollie Douglas



Open Day for the SWW Doctoral Training Partnership

Thinking about a doctorate? Are you a UK or EU student? Then check out this event!

This is a last minute reminder that you need to book by midday on Monday 13th January for the South, West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership’s Open Day at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. The event itself is on 22nd January 2014 and you can book via http://www.sww-ahdtp.ac.uk/open-day/ to meet potential supervisors, find out about different universities and learn an out about research opportunities.

The South, West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership has designed a unique programme called ‘The Professional Arts and Humanities Researcher’. I’m flagging it up here as Reading is involved and because it’s really well suited to people with an interest in museums, heritage and collections based research.

Exhibitions for 2014

Happy New Year! At this time of year, while most people are planning crash diets and strict exercise regimes, the Museum Studies boffin is looking for some big exhibitions to visit in the UK. Here are some interesting options:

  • They are probably not going to tell us how he faked his death but the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London will examine our enduring fascination with the fictional detective. Their Anatomy of a Suit exhibition also looks promising for fans of the well tailored gent.
  • At the Victoria and Albert Museum Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 looks like it’s going to be big. Will it bring the bustle back for 2015?
  • Vikings at the British Museum is definitely going in the diary but make sure you also check out the early medieval galleries which will be opening around the same time.
  • The Ashmolean has a knockout series of exhibitions lined up. The Blake and Tutankhamun exhibitions look like they’re going to be busy!
  • At the Natural History Museum you’ve got Mammoths and Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story for archaeology buffs.
  • Outside of the south-east you’ve got Kelvingrove’s Jack Vettriano Retrospective, and the National Museums Liverpool have a whole host of temporary exhibitions which look both aesthetically pleasing and boundary pushing. We might have to wait a bit longer to see the finished result but the St Fagans National History Museum’s Making History project is also really exciting.

Now obviously this list is currently very south-east and nationals focused. For art exhibitions Culture 24 currently has a helpful series of regional guides to 2014 exhibitions which you can consult. However, if there is an upcoming exhibition you’d like to shout about please write in comments and we’ll spread the word.