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.

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

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.

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 Royal Berkshire Medical Museum

Just back from the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum. I’ve been there before but I always seem to forget just what a hidden treasure it is. Tucked away in an old laundry room (Grade 2 listed), the museum is packed with fascinating stories and objects. The key ‘object’ is the glass jar of living leeches that are ‘fed’ by the team of volunteers.


Live leeches

The museum is run by former members of staff on a voluntary basis. The current display was made possible by HLF funding in 2008 and the look is the result of a collaboration with local designer Martin Andrews. I know Martin from the 2005 Ure Museum redesign, and his ability to bring objects to life with a low key and low cost bit of theatricality makes him a really inspiring guy to work with. Take for example this low tech bit of reconstruction.


Reconstruction of wartime injuries

However, the real stars are the objects. Weird, wonderful and a bit disturbing. One member of our group briefly looked up and started laughing at the faces everybody else was pulling. I love a museum that provokes a gut reaction (pun intended) and the universal subject of the body and medicine means that everybody has some kind of response.


Scary pokey things (yes that’s a medical term)

The museum is hard to get to and has limited opening hours but try to get to it if you can. It’s often open on weekends and is to the left hand side of the Royal Berkshire Hospital’s neo-classical facade on London Road (NB no parking but good bus links). Rather than rabbit on about it I thought I would add some photos for those who might not get to see inside. Enjoy…





Tray of glass eyes



The medicine cabinet



A view through the museum (small but perfectly formed)