Squeaky bum time: new year, new exhibition

It’s a new year and that means two things. One, we’re all still a bit fat after Christmas. And two, there are just a few weeks until we Part 3 students launch our Belonging exhibition! It is, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “squeaky bum time”.


Belonging is a multi-site exhibition which draws on the varied University of Reading collections to explore issues around inclusion, exclusion, loneliness and sense of place through five themes – Countryside, Culture, Clubs, Conflict and Community. Because Museum Studies is so brilliant, this exhibition is actually our ‘final project’ and doing a dissertation is optional (although three of us have foolishly chosen to do both!). In this post, we are each going to tell you a bit about the work we’re doing to put our exhibition together:


Matthew Abel (Countryside) – You could tell so many stories with a broad subject like the countryside, but I’ve been focusing on three key subthemes. Making Rural Communities considers how the idea of community is constructed in the countryside, and how people come to feel that they belong in rural areas. Right to Roam explores how the law has historically excluded people from the countryside, and looks at the ongoing campaign to improve public access. Finally, with immigration dominating the headlines, Seasonal Workers reveals how the countryside has always depended on migrant labour, and how these workers have been treated. Putting these displays together involves lots of practical work too, from planning case layouts to working out how to hang works of art – I am pleased to say I now know what ‘hollow wall fixings’ are! Emily and I will also be donning our boots soon to interview a local walking group!

Image: Two ramblers in a footpath protest at Ribchester, Lancashire, in October 1930. The Museum of English Rural Life, SR OSS PH5/J53.

Samuel Peters (Conflict) – War, what is it good for? Not just a catchy song, this question is one that has plagued history throughout time. Conflicts are quite often the markers used to recognise the passage of time. Centenaries marking various conflicts are commonplace, these happen to remind us of what has come before, the devastation, the loss of life, the irreversible damage. But do humans ever learn? After one war comes another, humans appear to be intrinsically linked to conflict, an inescapable inevitability. As tensions around the world appear to rise yet again, are we moving towards another conflict, is nuclear devastation on the horizon? Throughout conflicts and throughout wars people live, ordinary people, they leave behind innocent markers, things which would not appear to be from within a war, it is through these that we hope to analyse the extent to which humans belong to conflict; and answer the question, what is war good for?

Charlotte Rout (Culture) – To belong is the feeling that you are in the right place or suitable place; to feel happy or comfortable in a situation. Identifying to a culture can give people a sense of belonging and the feeling of being secure and accepted within a society. In the modern world, culture and self-identity are entirely linked, and when the two are disconnected this can often affect a person’s wellbeing, due to feeling isolated or excluded. Themes for this case include migration and globalization and how these can affect the way that individuals feel, especially when they feel that they cannot connect with a culture, including in the place that they call home. This case will use the University of Reading’s Art Collection and display pieces such as Max Weber’s Brooklyn Bridge and Robert Gibbings’ Man in a Tree to show how migration and globalization affect culture and how people feel that they belong.

Emily Thomas (Community) – Community connections are vital to museums and can be difficult for universities to build. ‘Threshold Fear’ is a phrase that many museums are aware of and defines what many people feel when visiting museums in which they feel they do not belong. This could also define the problem many university museums experience, so section will attempt to break some of these barriers down, with a case that will hopefully be held within the Reading Central Library’s exhibition area. It will use stories and images of children brought to Reading during World War II from the evacuee archive, displaying a time when community was a fundamental part of society. The case will also display responses to the word ‘home’ by Berkshire primary school children, bringing the thoughts of past and present Berkshire communities together. A second similar case will also be placed within MERL which will demonstrate the value of MERL’s Reading Room, a useful research facility that anyone can use.


Image: Activity sheet created for primary school children on which they could respond to the word ‘home.

Lucy Wilkes (Clubs) – Optimising each of the university’s collections is one of the main aims of this exhibition project. Because of this, we began to think about the Ure Museum and what ancient artefacts could offer in terms of showing a sense of belonging. We quickly realised that one way that ancient people experienced inclusion was via symposiums; elite males would gather to drink and socialise, and this made them feel that they belonged to a group. Women and slaves were excluded from these get-togethers. These ideas are the foundation of the ‘Belonging to Clubs’ case. This subtheme will subsequently explore the idea of belonging to clubs in other ages and communities, linking the Ure collections to the university archives, to discover whether the ancient idea of belonging through gender exclusive clubs has disappeared or simply evolved. Researching this subtheme has involved reading both student newspapers and theatre programmes from the 1920s, and it is surprising how quickly my enthusiasm for archives has grown!

Belonging will run from 20 February to 13 April 2018, with displays at The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, Reading Central Library, and the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology. You will find maps at each site to help you find your way around. We hope you enjoy it!

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

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.

Being a culture vulture in Reading #3

An art historian friend visited recently and there was a concerted effort to show her the culture that Reading had to offer. Walking around Reading with an art historian you become much more aware of the buildings that you usually ignore. She had made the journey because of an exhibition at Reading Museum John Tweed: The Empire Sculptor, Rodin’s Friend. She had even got a copy of the catalogue in advance. It was great to see that the book was authored and the exhibition co-curated by a former University of Reading student, now art historian, Dr Nicola Capon. I couldn’t take photos in the exhibition but there are some in the link. Tweed is dubbed ‘The Empire Sculptor’ and archival documents provide a fascinating insight into how these kinds of projects were negotiated, and the role that they played in the expansion and expression of empire. His “ideal” statues are also just really gorgeous to look at.

The same weekend I made good on a promise to visit an open studio, after my post on ‘slack spaces’ and artist run initiatives in Reading. After tweeting on that subject, Reading-based photographer Salvo Toscano got in touch to mention his open studio. He has some beautiful photographs from further afield but I was really drawn to the images from around Reading. Salvo lives not far from the Museum of English Rural Life (where I am based) and seeing local streets transformed by a photographer’s eye demonstrated the need to look again at my surroundings. It may be dangerous for somebody as clumsy as me to walk around staring up at buildings but I’m going to make a more concerted effort to stop and (don’t laugh) admire the beauty of Reading.

Oxford underground, overground, and at night

Last weekend we had Museum Memory DayMuseums at Night and International Museum Day. It is fitting that on Friday I set myself a crazy day of running around the Oxford museums and libraries.


The entrance to the Ashmolean’s Xu Bing exhibition

First off I popped into the Ashmolean to catch the Xu Bing exhibition before it closed. I had glimpsed the banners and mistakenly thought it was on traditional Chinese landscapes. The exhibition actually charted contemporary artist Xu Bing’s negotiation of socialist realism, pop art, French impressionist landscape painting, community art projects and calligraphy. His landscripts took centre stage. These are landscapes which use Chinese characters as marks to depict features in the landscape e.g. the character for rock to depict a rock. Maybe I’m weird but the early sketches made during the Cultural Revolution were my favourites. If you missed it there is a lot of highly quality online content still available via Eastern Art Online.


A Case for ‘Natural Histories’ at the Oxford Museum of History of Science

Then it was off to the Oxford Museum of History of Science. They only have a small temporary exhibition space which they always use to great effect. Their ‘Natural Histories’ exhibition used items from the currently closed Oxford Natural History Museum. It explored the use of these collections for scientific research. The items which stuck with me were initially unassuming preparations signed by Darwin and Linnaeus. The display of the taxidermy really captured the romance of these collections and seems to have inspired the Blackwell art shop next door in their window displays.

Blackwell Taxidermy

Taxidermy in the Blackwells Art Shop Oxford

Quick lunch in the Ashmolean and then what I thought was going to be the boring part of the day: hitting the books. Turns out reading is a lot more fun when you can pretend to be one of the X-men as you move from historic building to secret underground facility. The Gladstone annexe is in an old book tunnel between the Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera. I don’t think it’s open to the public but here is a sneak peek.


The tunnel to the Gladstone Annexe

Rounded off the day listening to the wonderful Jon Whiteley talk about the history of the Ashmolean for Museums at Night. The event also celebrated the launch of the new book about the history of the museum ‘Dodos and Dark Lanterns’ (Berry 2013). I had a train to catch so I only caught glimpses of what was on offer: live music, historic costume, lantern making with families. I then ran to the Pitt Rivers Museum to see it in darkness (again for for Museums at Night). The sight of the shrunken heads by torch light was particularly uncanny. It was worth the run and I only wish I could have stayed longer.


Best photo I could get with no flash while balancing a torch of Pitt Rivers Museum in darkness

The Nerd and the Museum 1#

nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’”

– John Green

At the Society of Museum Archaeologists’ Conference in Manchester 2012 Dr Nick Merriman suggested that museums need to reach out to the geek audience. Museums have always struggled to bring in young people, so marketing and programming for an ‘unironically enthusiastic’ audience might be just what is needed.

Studies of visitor figures from around the world show that, as a general rule, you stop going to museums when your parents and school teachers stop taking you. You start going again when you have kids of your own. So what is going to make you come in while you are a ‘young person’? This is something which really troubles me as somebody teaching mostly 18-30 year olds from within a museum of rural life.

I went to a fantastic ‘Steampunk’ exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford a few years ago which was packed with people in the 18-30 bracket. More recently I found myself as part of a Nerdfighter gathering, in which I was one of the oldest people, at the STEAM Museum in Swindon. I was there to see John and Hank Green, who have found a variety of ways to get young people interested in history, science and culture online. Not all young people are geeks but thinking and marketing geeky clearly expands your audience from the perspective of age. It can also be the catalyst for new questions and displays of creativity.

As somebody marching on through their 30’s I am sad to say that I am no longer in the ‘young person’ demographic. However, I would define myself as a bit of a geek.  In light of this I thought that I would combine my two passions and write a series of posts about things which link the geeky and the museological. Next post on Nerdfighters and Brainscoop.

Being a culture vulture in Reading #2

So the Bank Holiday was a lot more about sitting in the sunshine than being a culture vulture. However, I did go to the Beer Festival which had live music from local bands all night and beer…obviously. The music has a bit of a blue grass feel and some of the acts from ‘Are You Listening?’ Festival popped up again. I decided to be patriotic and drank Welsh, which was also a chance to revive my Welsh GCSE. Brewers seem keen to fox the English with Welsh names i.e. I vaguely recall seeing an ‘Ysbyty Seidr’ (Hospital Cider) there before. ‘Cwtch’ means cuddle so you had to ask the bartender for a hug in order to get a pint of that. My favourite name was the cider ‘Gwynt y Ddraig’ which I believe means something like ‘Breath of the Dragon’. I don’t know whether it’s everybody’s idea of cultural activity but it is a pretty big date in the Reading calendar and CAMRA have an interesting place in sustaining our brewing heritage. I remember one museum curator told me that they got CAMRA members to help out with a display on the local pub in village life which is a really nifty way or interacting with different kinds of organisations.

Aunt Elsie's

Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling stall holders

I was a little more refined at Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling which was held in Market Square in Reading. Tea and bunting, vintage clothes and furniture, local arts and crafts – yay! It’s a really great show case for local makers. When I wanted to try on a vintage dress from Alexandra Vintage I ended up strolling into the HQ of the organisers 42 Market Place where there are open days and workshops.

One of the affiliated organisations Jelly has been around for ages (I still call it by its original name ‘Jelly Legg’d Chicken’) finding space for art and artists around Reading. It has parallels in the wider ‘slack space’ movement. This is an interesting phenomenon where artists and makers set up shop in disused retail spaces, and it seems to flourish in times of recession. It certainly brightens up the town centre to see art instead of ‘for rent’ signs and piles of bills through the windows of disused outlets. I’ve come across another nice example Slack Space Colchester.

I have made it a mini-mission to uncover some more detailed research on ‘slack spaces’ and these kinds of community art projects, specifically how museums may support them. When I hunt down some more information expect another post.

Aunt Elsie's 2

Tea at Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling

Being a culture vulture in Reading #1

Lisa Dwan looking at script for 'Not I'

Lisa Dwan looking at script for ‘Not I’ (UniRdg Communications)

I’ve had quite a ‘cultural week’ which gave me the idea for a series of blog posts. Being so close to Oxford and London, Reading can sometimes feel a bit like a cultural ‘Narnia’. However, this week reminded me that there are lots of committed and talented people doing things in the local area. These blog posts will highlight some of the stuff that’s available to the culture vulture. NB there will be no attempt to be comprehensive – just things I hear about/go to. That being said, if you tell me about things then I am more likely to attend and talk about it. Also these are not intended to be artsy critiques, just some info and musings.

Lisa Dwan performed Samuel Beckett’s rarely staged ‘Not I’ in the Minghella Building at the University of Reading last Friday. We got a chance to see the original manuscript and I would recommend following Lisa on Twitter, she’s got some interesting behind the scenes photos. The play was just under 10 minutes long but it was really hard to get a sense of time or space in the darkness as ‘Mouth’ talked incessantly from 8 feet above the stage. I came out feeling shellshocked but in awe of Lisa Dwan’s performance. It’s something I would never have thought of going to see before I came to Reading, which is why it’s so great to have the Beckett Collection on campus.

The other event was the ‘Are You Listening?’ Festival. For £10 (which went to Mencap) you could listen to local bands at a range of venues around the town. Of what I saw I can recommend The 3.1419 Wonders, Quiet Quiet Band, and Tail Feather. Damien a Passmore and the Loveable Fraudsters’ ‘garage-country’ or ‘CowPunk’ take on Warren G’s Regulate was brilliant. I also listened to and liked, but did not see, Sophie Henderson through the floorboards of the excellent cafe Milk while munching on my chocolate and banana cake downstairs. The festival was a bit ‘men with guitars’ heavy so it was nice to have a talented female singer songwriter on the programme.

Image of Reading Gaol's Aliens and Irish ledger (Berkshire Record Office)

Image of Reading Gaol’s Aliens and Irish ledger (Berkshire Record Office)

And finally last night I went to something organised by the University of Reading Department of English Literature and the Berkshire Record Office last night. Oscar Wilde made Reading Gaol famous but this exhibition and event looked at the internment of Irish detainees following the 1916 Uprising. The ‘Enemies of the State’ Project is an interesting example of how research, collections and public engagement can come together. There was also nice veggie food and a live Irish band which is always a good thing.

This weekend there’s the Reading Beer Festival. Which is CAMRA so I’m counting it as ‘cultural’. I am also going to try to make it to Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling which is a kind of pop-up art/vintage market – usually with tea and cake. And in case you start to suspect that I am in any way highbrow I should mention that tonight at the cinema it’s ‘Iron Man 3’