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

What is Museum Studies at the University of Reading?

 

by Marina Rogov, Museum Studies Student at the University of Reading

In basic terms Museum Studies is the study of museums, this however is not a very detailed description. On the Museum Studies course at the University of Reading we cover a wide range of topics and get the opportunity to gain practical experience within museums. To try and provide a fuller description I got a friend to ask questions about the subject and I have answered them here:

What is a museum?

Let’s start with the essentials, a museum is an organisation that preserves history through the care and curation of objects and stories. They help to reflect on current issues in society and work alongside the community to make history accessible to all.

When did museum studies start as a subject?

People started to study museums, discuss and produce theories on them from about the 1960s onward, and the debate and discussion continues today. Our undergraduate course in Museum Studies at the University of Reading began as a series of modules that were made available to students from 2006. Now students can study for a degree in either Museum Studies with Archaeology, or Museum Studies with Classical Studies.

What modules do you do?

We do a bit of everything, with theory thrown in, from designing new exhibitions to looking at the history, policy and ethics of museums. We get a chance to study what goes on behind the scenes at these important cultural institutions. This year I am studying museum learning and engagement, which I really enjoy as it’s the area I want to go into. Next term we are studying museum curatorship and management which will help us with our final exhibition we have to plan in the final year of the course.

Who teaches it?

We have two museum studies lecturers, Dr Rhi Smith and Dr Nicola Pickering, both of whom have experience in museums and have a brilliant knowledge of the subject.

Why did you choose to study it?

I have always enjoyed museums, but I didn’t realise I could study it at undergraduate level until I started looking at Classics courses. It is rare to find a course for museum studies at undergraduate level so when I found the Classics and Museum Studies degree in Reading I knew it was the one for me, and it has definitely been the right choice.

What other activities are you doing as well as studying?

Volunteering! It is almost impossible to get a job in museums without previous experience, so volunteering is the way to go. Currently I volunteer in a school helping in their GCSE art classes and I also work at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading (the MERL). At the MERL I participate in the teachers’ panel and work on the front desk. I am also currently helping to organise the new Saturday club for Reading Museum Trustees. There are always so many opportunities in museums so my advice to prospective students is to get involved!

What do you plan to do after your course?

Hopefully I will find a job in education or outreach within the museums sector, as I enjoy working with the public organising activities and events. I am also considering a job in teaching as I enjoy volunteering in schools and the museum studies degree has enabled me to develop transferable skills and knowledge, such as learning how to design session plans. So whilst most people studying the course will go on to have careers in museums, the varied modules also allow you to identify an area in which to specialise or to explore alternative career possibilities.

Finally, would you recommend museum studies as a degree course?

Absolutely! Museums are part of an amazing sector, and there are many different jobs possibilities so you are likely to find the perfect role for you. Museums allow you to work with people from different backgrounds who share common interests and passions and I can’t wait to see where my degree will take me!

Marina Rogov, Museum Studies Student at the University of Reading

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

 

 

PhD Studentship Opportunities

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Farm in Yorkshire Dales

This year has seen an exciting new development. We have a new collections-based research programme! This allows PhD students to undertake research with University of Reading collections and get specialised training. Two of these studentships connect with MERL and special collections, but the opportunity to apply for these two exciting scholarship opportunities ends 31 July. Spread the word! Prof. Alison Donnell has kindly given us some more details in a guest post.

The Programme offers students a learning environment in which to undertake original scholarly research in our outstanding and wide-ranging collections. Alongside high quality research supervision, you will benefit from exceptional access to primary sources and the associated professional expertise of a university museum. This nationally distinctive postgraduate training is underpinned by a focus on museum and archives skills training and placement opportunities that enhance both intellectual and employment horizons http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/DoctoralTrainingProgramme/cbr-dtp.aspx

Both studentships cover fees for the duration of the PhD and offer an additional payment of £3000 for the first year and £1000 per annum for the next two years (part-time options also available).

 A PhD around the topic of ‘Changes in farm business structure in England, 1936-56’ entails working with records at The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the foremost repository for English agricultural and rural history archival material. The project will study agricultural and farm business change over 1936-56, a period of rapid and fundamental developments in the industry affecting not just the resource base, but methods of production and consumer demand. The approach taken could be historical, economic, behavioural or sociological. However, as the database lends itself to the use of GIS techniques, geographers could also find it useful as could those interested in environmental change at the regional level.

‘Animating the Evacuee Archive: Memory and Materiality’ offers an opportunity for practice-led doctoral research around the largest evacuee archive in the UK. The archive contains a wealth of autobiographical documentation produced by a range of socially and culturally diverse Second World War child evacuees from the UK to a variety of national and international destinations, including – via the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. The available documentation includes written testimonies, diaries, letters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and a variety of ephemera, such as, for example, ships’ menus. We invite applications from appropriately qualified candidates in any relevant discipline, including theatre, museum studies, history, performance, film and media studies. You should have an interest in socio-political histories and their documentation. The project framework proposes practice-led doctoral research that will engage with, intervene in and animate aspects of this archive within a range of publicly accessible spaces, thus shaping and re-routing it via a hybridized range of potentially interactive events. The critical frameworks and practical outcomes of the PhD research will be informed by, and interlock with, an important new cross-institutional project funded by the Arts Council, in which the supervisors are involved. There is also a placement opportunity in a museum setting.

This is a really amazing opportunity so please do tweet, post and blog about the studentships. For further details see: http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/StudentshipsandFellowships/cbr-stufel.aspx

Life after Reading #1 Laura Weill

This is the first of a blog series where I find out what former students and volunteers are doing in the museum, arts and heritage sector. First up is Laura, who has just come back to work for us!

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What are you doing now?

I currently work at the Museum of English Rural Life as a project assistant on the ‘A Sense of Place’ project. I am responsible for updating the online database, making the collection more accessible for researchers and those who are unable to visit the museum. This project has a particular emphasis on place and location as a point of access.

How did your time at Reading prepare you for this line of work?

Museum Studies modules
I did the Museum Studies modules in every year of my undergraduate; mainly chosen because I enjoy museums and was curious as to what could be learnt about them. It was the museum studies module I did in my first year that made me realise museums could be the career for me. I distinctly remember being set tasks where we had to plan trails to engage audiences, which I really enjoyed. I learnt quickly that a lot more thought goes into museums and their displays than I had ever imagined. Having finished the module in the first term, I was keen to get volunteering throughout spring and summer.

Modules in following years included a task where you had to research a chosen object, update the accession file, write a label and design a temporary exhibition around it. The bit of the task I was surprised to find very difficult was being able to write a clear and concise label. I had to ensure it was accessible in terms of readability, reading age and appearance. As well make sure the language was active and engaging. I was had to avoid the temptation to write everything I knew about the object in an essay style piece of writing. This skill has proved very useful for writing object descriptions and labels. This task also allowed me to experience the online database, which I now use every day.

Voluntary
In my first year at Reading University I volunteered on various MERL events and workshops, eventually becoming a weekend tour guide. This gave me a good understanding of the collection, what has been collected and why. This basic understanding is now vital, as I work through the catalogue, ensuring I mention objects’ significance in relation to the collection. Additionally the experience of public speaking during my time as a tour guide really improved my confidence and ability to talk to the public, very important now for interacting with visitors and researchers.

Degree
I did a joint honours degree in Archaeology and History of Art and Architecture (2008-2011). Both involved many trips to museums, galleries and heritage sites, where I was able to look at exhibitions with my new ‘museum studies eyes’, assessing whether they were successful or not. My degree involved a lot of research, skills I now use when updating the catalogue. Furthermore, I came to Reading thinking I wanted to become the next Indiana Jones, a dream squashed by my first experience of practical archaeology at Silchester, where I discovered I can’t differentiate between types of soil and don’t do well knelt in the dirt in all weathers. However, whilst there I assisted on public open days which I really enjoyed.

Thesis
Having enjoyed all of the museums studies modules, and with plans to do a museum studies MA, I decided to choose a museum based thesis topic. Here I compared and contrasted three galleries within the Ashmolean Museum; a statue corridor near the entrance, modern art room on the top floor and the newly refurbished cast gallery. Here I analysed how visitors used the space and then tried to assess why they did so. This allowed me to do more in depth museum studies research and confirmed that I would really enjoy a museum studies masters.

Paid work
At the end of my first year I applied to be a Saturday gallery assistant at the Museum of English Rural Life, a position I stayed in throughout my undergrad. This enabled me to interact with the public, gauge what they enjoyed and why. I was also able to put my tour guiding stills into practice, week after week.

Additionally, with the realisation that I was not going to be a practical archaeologist, in my second year I decided to volunteer in the visitors cabin at Silchester, and in my third year was employed as the visitors manager. This involved organising school and group visits, public open days and a lot of tour guiding. I was also responsible for training students in giving guided tours. Again my time here helped develop my ability to interact and engage with the public.

What training/experience did you get after leaving Reading?

After leaving Reading I went straight on to complete a Museum Studies MA at the University of Leicester, which was recommended to me as the place to study if you wanted to go onto work in the museum industry. It was an amazing year with some really interesting modules, trips and tasks. Everything I learnt was clearly relevant to a career in museums. As part of the master I did an 8 week work placement at Falmouth Art Gallery, allowing me to experience a different kind on museum. Here I did a lot of extensive research and cataloguing, as well as marketing and learning.

If you could give just one piece of advice for current students what would it be?

My main piece of advice would be to take every opportunity offered to you, don’t waste the time you have at university- volunteer, gain skills and experience everything you can. Before my time at the Museum of English Rural Life, I was relatively shy, reluctant to interact with the public. But having been strongly encouraged to do the tour guiding course, by the volunteer coordinator at the time, I gained a lot of confidence and discovered my passion for engaging the public with arts and heritage. I was very lucky to gain so much voluntary experience, which led me to get 3 jobs while at university, a place on an MA course and my current position as project assistant. So get volunteering, not only will it look good on your CV, you may discover a hidden passion.

Welcome to our new blog!

As it says above this is a brand spanking new blog. My name is Rhianedd or ‘Rhi’ Smith and I’m the Museum Studies Programme Director and novice blogger. This blog is for museum studies students and researchers at Reading and beyond. I have big plans that one day it will also be written in part by students. I am definitely planning on press-ganging my colleagues into posting and I will flag up interesting posts on blogs written by folks at Reading or people in the wider world.

We’ve been teaching Museum Studies at Reading since 2005, although there is a longer history which I will try to track in an upcoming post. The optional modules we devised back in 2005 were so popular that we are offering two joint degrees, BA Classical and Museum Studies and BA Archaeology and Museum Studies, from 2013/2014.

I want this blog to be a central place for information and discussion which students and researchers (here and elsewhere) can eventually tap into and contribute to.The initial posts are going to be written by yours truly. I’m going to give some background to the museums and collections here and our approach to teaching and research with collections. However, I’m also going to blog about exhibitions, projects, conferences and anything that takes my interest – hence the word ‘musings’ in the tagline.

So to conclude here’s a really old photo of students having a lively discussion about a pig carcass scraper in our stores. I like it because it shows how even the most mundane (and kind of disgusting) object can spark a conversation. Hopefully that’s what this blog will be –  a way to spark a conversation.

Students in the store