Museums in Reading

by Gracie Price, Museum Studies Student at the University of Reading

We are very lucky in Reading to have many different museums in the town, covering a variety of subjects. There are eight museums within Reading (one is slightly outside the town however) and so far, I have managed to visit five of these and volunteer in two of them. Reading museums are benefiting from lots of renovation projects, which are improving the access to these museums for the public.

The Museum of English Rural Life

This is the first museum I visited when I started studying at Reading – mainly because we have the pleasure of using the building for our lectures and as I work in the front of house team there. The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) reopened last year after a redevelopment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The museum tells the story of rural life in England and has a gallery highlighting some of the Ladybird book art work collection. The MERL is an excellent place for us to learn about museums and we often get ‘behind the scenes’ tours and talks from museum staff.

Reading Museum

Reading Museum is in the centre of the town in a beautiful historic building shared with the town hall. The museum is currently in the process of redeveloping their Abbey Quarter gallery, but it is remaining open alongside the work. The museum has galleries covering a range of subjects including Silchester Roman town, Huntley and Palmers biscuits, Natural History, and the Bayeux Tapestry. One of the main things the museum is known for is their loans box service which started in 1911, the service offers boxes of objects to schools and groups for use in educational activities and they now have 1,500 boxes available.

Cole Museum of Zoology

The Cole is the second museum I volunteer in which is housed on campus at the University. Here I work with the microscope slide collection working to catalogue and organise the collection to improve access for researchers. We recently had a large increase in our volunteer force as the museum will be moving to a new building in 2019, so work is underway designing new displays, cataloguing the collection, and most importantly, to fundraise for the move. The museum was established from the collection of zoology lecturer Francis J. Cole in the 20th century and contains around 3,500 specimens, of which around 400 are on display at any one time. The star of the museum however is the complete male elephant skeleton who greets visitors as they enter the museum – he may also be the hardest one to move when it comes to it too!

Royal Berkshire Medical Museum

Housed in a building just off the Royal Berkshire hospital the Medical Museum provides a compact exploration of the history of medicine. The museum is run by volunteers and is opened on the second and fourth Sunday of the month for visitors and I would suggest you visit. The collection contains many examples of medical equipment and medicines including an iron lung used in the museum and a jar of live leeches. The volunteers are very knowledgeable and were very happy to discuss the collections with me and answer my questions which always makes a visit more engaging.

Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

The Ure Museum is another museum housed on the campus and it contains a collection of mainly Greek pottery but also some Egyptian artefacts established by the University’s first professor of Classics, Professor P.N. Ure and his wife Dr A.D. Ure. The museum displays the collection of Greek pottery through 9 different themes, including Myth and Religion, Education and Body Beautiful. There are also cases exploring some of the Egyptian artefacts as well as the history of the museum and how the artefacts ended up within the collection.

Other museums

There are three museums in Reading I am still yet to visit, however I am hoping to rectify this in the coming months as they all look brilliant and I have heard wonderful things about them all. These museums are the Riverside Museum at Blake’s Lock, the Reading Typography collection on the main university campus and the Berkshire Aviation Museum, which is a short car or bus ride outside of the main town.

Gracie Price, Museum Studies Student at the University of Reading

Central Zagros Archaeological Project Bestansur

If the blog has seemed quiet for a little while it’s because Museum Studies at Reading went international during the Easter vacation. The first trip was with the Department of Archaeology’s Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP). As you’ll see Kurdistan is beautiful in the spring and the people were extremely welcoming. I was over there to give some advice on the ‘public archaeology’ side of things and to explore the potential to develop some interpretation with and for local people.

The fields around Bestansur

The fields around Bestansur

The CZAP project focuses on the Central Zagros region of west Iran and east Iraq and explores the beginnings of the Neolithic. The project combines techniques from archaeological science and social archaeology to understand the move to farming in this area of the Fertile Crescent. Some of the earliest layers are 9700 years old so specialists are looking for tiny traces of past activity using techniques such as micro-morphology.

The team getting ready to dig first thing in the morning

The team getting ready to dig first thing in the morning

One of our students Mat sieving for tiny fragments

One of our students Mat sieving for tiny fragments

This kind of project difficult to explain to non-specialists. One of my dissertation students Mat Britten (pictured above) was also on the trip as part of his research into public understanding of archaeological science – specifically micro-morphology. He is lucky to have micro-morph expert Dr Wendy Matthews as his other supervisor. She is extremely well versed in trying to explain this process to archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike.

With Mat and the rest of the team helping I tried to see what we could do on the interpretation front. The local city of Sulaimaniyah (you’ll find lots of spellings and pronunciations of this) has a fantastic museum which recently received UNESCO funding for some refurbishment. We worked with their staff to bring in teachers and create resources in Kurdish.

Slemani Museum

Slemani Museum

In the UK something like this would probably take years to organise but the Director of Education for the region managed to get 28 teachers and 5 regional supervisors to the site only 4 days after we approached him with the idea. It was really impressive to see this level of commitment to archaeology, and the teachers seemed as interested in the behind the scenes science labs as they were in the site itself.

Mat explaining micro-morphology to teachers back at the labs

Mat explaining micro-morphology to teachers back at the labs

Later in the season the chemistry teachers in the region also visited to find out more about the scientific processes being undertaken by specialists on site. Mat and another member of the team Hawar managed to put together a simple but effective flyer explaining the site in English and Kurdish for the second visit which can be used again in the future.

Teachers on site

Teachers on site

I had a wonderful time in Bestansur. The Reading and the local team were extremely welcoming and the site itself was fascinating. From interviewing local workers we found that there is a great deal of regional pride in the results of this excavation. As the dig went on more and more people came to visit. The region is focusing a lot of energy on its archaeology and history at the moment. It will be interesting to see how the site develops over the next few years.

 

 

AHRC: Glastonbury Revealed

How do you interpret a site which is best known for its myths? The University of Reading is being featured on the AHRC website today in a film which examines a recent research project with Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, UK. Find out more about how Professor Roberta Gilchrist (Department of Archaeology, University of Reading) and a team of experts disentangled a complex web of archival documents and stored objects related to historic excavations at the site (1904 – 1979). Museum Studies Programme Director Dr Rhi Smith appears in the video, talking about her collaboration with the Abbey and the challenges of developing an interpretation strategy which respected the complex history and spiritual significance of the site.

The AHRC have provided the following information on the project:

“The site of Glastonbury Abbey is one of the important ancient heritage sites in the UK.

A focus for many people who value the spiritual and historical resonances of the place, it is best known for its legendary reputation as the burial place of King Arthur and as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain, allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the great-uncle of Christ, in AD 63.

A team of AHRC-funded researchers, led by Professor Roberta Gilchrist of Reading University, has re-evaluated the history of Glastonbury Abbey and its environs and disentangled the rich but not always accurate myth from historical reality.

Among the findings are: fresh evidence to confirm that the abbey site was indeed occupied in the 5th or 6th century, before the foundation of the Saxon monastery; identification of an early timber building with large post pits associated with fragments of imported Roman amphorae, dated c AD 450-550 and often associated with very high status secular (ie royal) settlement; analysis of glass and metal fragments suggesting that the glass-working furnaces at Glastonbury represent the earliest evidence for significant glass production in Saxon England; and a great deal more.

The project has worked closely with local groups and the general public and outreach activities have been crucial to its work and its findings.

This film examines the new evidence unearthed by the project and how researchers have worked with the Abbey Museum, conservators and the public to explore the history of this rich and extraordinary site.”

A-level Archaeology Event at Glastonbury Abbey Monday 3rd February 2013

Just a quick post to flag up an event. On Monday 3rd February we are running an outreach event for schools as a collaboration between Glastonbury Abbey and the University of Reading. It runs 10:00-13:00 and pre-booking is essential. It’s mainly aimed at A-level students but we’re happy to hear from enthusiastic GCSE or Foundation level classes. I’ve been e-mailing teachers throughout the region but messages don’t always get through so please spread the word.

Eminent archaeologist Professor Roberta Gilchrist will be talking about archaeological practice, medieval archaeology and brand new findings from the Glastonbury Abbey Excavation Archive Project.

There will also be workshops, careers advice and tours of the Abbey. I’m going to be there talking about the challenges of caring for and interpreting monastic heritage sites. Send me an e-mail at r.smith@reading.ac.uk if you want to get the full details or make a booking.

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey

Society for Museum Archaeology 2013 Conference

This post is a little delayed (partially by going to Liverpool for the Museums Association Conference 2013). The week before my sojourn to Liverpool I was at a conference in Portsmouth hosted in the fabulous new Mary Rose Museum. The Society for Museum Archaeology promotes the interest of archaeology in museums across the UK and their annual conference is a great way to debate current issues and learn about new projects. This year’s theme was ‘What’s the Big Picture?’ with experts from around the UK talking about big projects and big ideas.

Individual chests are used to illustrate personal stories at the Mary Rose Museum

Individual chests are used to illustrate personal stories at the Mary Rose Museum

The day started with an introduction to the Mary Rose Museum and tours from the curators. It is a truly amazing piece of interpretation and it will get its own blog post review in the near future. The boat theme continued with talks on the Newport Medieval Ship from Toby Jones and Ian Panter discussing his work conserving eight (!) log boats for York Archaeological Trust. Following this the keynote came from Simon Thurley (head of English Heritage) and provoked a lively debate which continued on into the conference meal.

The double sided viewing gallery Mary Rose Museum

The double sided viewing gallery Mary Rose Museum

The second day of the conference kicked off with an introduction to the Creswell Crags collecting project and then to Brian Graham’s artwork. The picture element of the conference title was continued in Mark Hall’s discussion of interviews with artists who use archaeological sites and objects as inspiration. We also heard about the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum from Senior Curator Paul Roberts.

A view through the Mary Rose

A view through the Mary Rose

The most shocking event of the conference came next when “somebody” took his shirt off… it’s OK he was showing off the art and archaeology inspired t-shirt underneath and waxing lyrical about art in archaeological museums. The conference then moved into the slightly more serious annual ‘State of the Nation’ session in which we got updates from Scotland, Wales, Arts Council England and The Council for British Archaeology. I’m personally looking forward to seeing the redevelopment at St Fagan’s National History Museum, Wales my childhood museum.

Following that David Dawson talked about the Wessex Museums Partnership and strategies for making local authorities plan for archaeological archiving. That reminds me that I should flag up the recent opening of their new prehistory galleries. Another one for the planner followed that talk: the still pretty new Experience Barnsley complete with recently repatriated archaeological collections from regional museums.

The New Mary Rose Building

The New Mary Rose Building

The conference ended with the AGM in which we bade farewell to some extremely hardworking committee members. Eagle eyed readers will also have noted that the name has changed from the Society of Museum Archaeologists to the Society for Museum Archaeology and this reflects a redrafting of the constitution. Finally, I should probably announce that I am the new Training Officer. If my account of the conference has sparked off any ideas please get in touch!

 

Postcard from Samos

Warrior Samos Museum

Warriors Samos Archaeological Museum

I was on the Greek Island of Samos recently (hence the lack of updates) and visited the Archaeological Museum in Samos Town (or Vathy). It houses some beautiful objects most notably the statue of a colossal kouros (a representation of a male youth). The sculpture can be seen in a custom made building opened in 1987 to deal with its massive scale. For most of the time I was there visitors were clustered around the base of the statue having their photos taken.

Kouros Samos Archaeological Museum

Kouros – Samos Archaeological Museum

I personally preferred the collection of smaller items in the adjacent building which used to house a library/ archive (guidebooks differed in opinion). Samos’ location meant that following the flowering of its own culture in the 6th century BC it was involved in trade or conflict with a number of different civilizations. These influences can be seen in the collection which includes some beautiful little Egyptian pieces.

Display cases Samos Archaeological Museum

Display cases Samos Archaeological Museum

As you can see from the images the museum was far from over-interpreted. What it did very well was use stands and subtle reconstruction to make even the smallest of objects interesting. Below is a tiny fragment of pottery which nonetheless jumped out at me. I used to work at the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology and it was great to see what I think might be a whole aulos being played.

Aulos - Samos Archaeological Museum

Aulos – Samos Archaeological Museum

Before visiting I had been reading Monti and Keene’s (2013) Museums and Silent Objects where they ask whether less impressive objects can be displayed in a way which attracts and keeps the interest of visitors. In this museum the Kouros is clearly the star but by splitting up the larger pieces and the smaller items and by using the simplest of all display techniques (interesting arrangement within a case) curators made sure that it did not overpower the rest of the objects. These tiny objects would have been worn against the skin or clutched in the hand. As such they connect us with individual and imperfect humans rather than their idealised forms.

Heads -Samos Archaeological Museum

Heads -Samos Archaeological Museum

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation Project

My research examines the interpretation of Glastonbury Abbey and I visited yesterday to see what’s going on. I found the Abbot’s Kitchen covered in scaffolding as part of a conservation and re-interpretation project.

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot's Kitchen Conservation

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

The Abbot’s Kitchen is a fascinating piece of architecture with a varied history. It was built sometime between 1320 and 1370 as part of a large complex which served the Abbot’s guests and speaks of the medieval wealth the Abbey. Given its relatively domestic function it also holds stories of religious strife. The Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 saw the man it served, Abbot Richard Whiting, being executed, with his head put on a spike above the Abbey gatehouse. Immediately following this it was home to group of Huguenot weavers fleeing religious persecution on the continent. In 1683 it also housed a Quaker meeting which was forcibly broken up and resulted in 10 Friends being sent to jail.

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot's Kitchen Conservation

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

It was eventually used as a cow shed but drew the interest of antiquarians and artists with its unique design. Pugin visited Glastonbury Abbey and drew elevations of the kitchen. It was well known to figures such as John Ruskin and was replicated in neo-Gothic architecture. The ‘laboratory’ to the right of Oxford Museum of Natural History entrance is based on the Abbot’s Kitchen and I even found a summer house replica on St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. The Abbey is running an exhibition on the Kitchen which deals with these issues, and a case full of tourist images demonstrates its ongoing iconic status.

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot's Kitchen Conservation

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

As for the future of the Kitchen, more can be found out in the exhibition and its accompanying video interview with project staff. Historical kitchen expert Peter Brears has recently been able to provide information about the layout of the medieval building, even identifying the presence of a raised walkway where chefs could watch different workers. A conservation team is currently hard at work stabilising the building before re-interpretation can take place. Visitors will be able to get tours of the scaffolding over the next couple of weeks but I got a sneak preview. Here are some more photographs of what I saw…please enjoy and think about contributing to the Rescue our Ruins project which is making this possible.

Glastonbury Abbey Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

 

Postcard from America 4 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anybody who has visited ‘the Met’ will know that it is impossible to summarize it in a single blog post. The place is humongous and I spent a lot of my time walking in circles.The Museum traces its roots back to 1866 when a group of Americans agreed to establish a national museum of art. The Museum opened in its current location on 5th Avenue in 1880 and provides more information on its own history via its website.

Medieval gallery at The Met

Medieval gallery at The Met

What I found interesting about the Met is that it defines itself as a museum of art in its mission statement but has large holdings of what might be termed archaeological material. As the work of Prof. Christopher Whitehead has illustrated the line between these kinds of objects is fuzzy and has an interesting place in the history of the development of academic disciplines in the 19th century. In the Met archaeological objects are displayed largely as pieces of decorative art. The visitor is encouraged to appreciate their aesthetic values over their social or economic function. However, the museum also uses it’s own architecture to create room sets which provide context for individual items. This works particularly well with the medieval collections in highlighting their function within larger religious buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright room set at the Met

Frank Lloyd Wright room set at the Met

After an hour of aimless wandering I made a decision to seek out material which I couldn’t see in Europe. After visiting a haunting photographic exhibition Photography and the American Civil War I took about half an hour to find the American galleries. Unfortunately I was there a few months too early to see a new permanent gallery devoted to the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany but I did get to see some examples of his work in the current displays. Again, there were room sets, including a Frank Lloyd Wright room which I would have happily moved into.

Being a museum geek, what really impressed me was the visible storage which was accompanied by computer screens where one could type in the location of an object and get more information. It tested my jet lag diminished memory to get the numbers to the machine, but it was a great place to explore. They also had a wall decorated in tiny images of all of the gallery’s acquisitions drawn from their database. It created a striking visual effect and could be explored while you loitered on the benches in that space.

Visible Storage at the Met

Visible Storage at the Met

This might seem like an extremely partial account of such a world famous museum. A museum where you can get hand rolled sushi in the cafeteria and where every object is recognisable from a text book.However, visiting a museum with such vast collections can be overwhelming and these smaller spaces for exploration and reflection are a useful antidote.

Silchester Excavation Open Day July 2013

Students in woad

Students in woad

I was out at the  Silchester Excavation site today for one of their annual Open Days. For those of you that don’t know, the Silchester Excavation is examining one insula (or block) in the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum and the Iron Age settlement Calleva which lies beneath it. Since 1997 Prof Mike Fulford and Amanda Clarke have been leading a team of dedicated excavators at the site. Silchester is the University of Reading Archaeology Department’s training dig and students make up the majority of the ‘diggers’.

Visitors

Visitors on the viewing platform

Students also get involved in the interpretation of the site, this year under the guidance of freelance museum educator Ross McGauran. The site welcomes school groups and has a training pit, Roman garden, tours and activities for visitors to the site. I was also really impressed by their head-sets which linked visitors not to a pre-recorded tour but to a microphone. This meant that site directors could jump around the trenches providing information while visitors listened from a viewing platform. On a windy day like today this was much needed.

This kind of activity also gives students an opportunity to communicate their passion for the subject with the public. In recent blog posts I seem to be repeatedly talking about how easily the popular image of apathetic students is overturned when you look at heritage volunteering. Academics and professionals can assist in this process by providing support and giving students a platform to express themselves. To link back to a previous post on this blog two of the students were Nerdfighters and the three of us chatted about how we had been inspired to use social media to communicate about arts and heritage. I am currently thinking about how I can integrate social media training into my teaching to help students in this process. The students that I met at Silchester were excellent communicators and the kids who visited were enthralled. I walked back up the path at the end of the day to find a 7 and 3 year old ‘being archaeologists’ by picking up every piece of gravel. If you want to be similarly inspired the next Open Day is on 3rd August…

Silchester Insula IX

Silchester Insula IX