MERL collections to be given a human voice

As you will have gleaned from previous posts, a really important aspect of the Reading Connections project is to make the MERL and Reading Museum collections accessible so that they have the potential to be viewed and used by as large an audience as possible. Partly this has been achieved through the creation of digital resources (such as the Memorial Book flickr site which details those who had connections with the Reading University College and who lost their lives during the First World War). As 2014 gets underway, however, an additional oral history strand will come into force which will provide another way for communities to engage with the collections.

Oral history (or the the conducting of interviews with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an record for future generations) has been increasingly used in museums as part of their interpretation.In particular the last 20 years, which has witnessed the reinterpretation and the democratization of museum spaces, has also seen an increased use of oral histories in heritage settings. For many museum professionals and visitors, this has been a welcome change. Mark O’Neill (Director of Policy and Research for Glasgow Life) describes that: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”. Oral testimonies can provide a human voice, increase relevance and can capture aspects of life which are informal and unwritten and which might otherwise disappear without trace. We are now in a position where more museums than ever are taking notice of the things that people remember.

In MERL we are lucky to have an extensive Evacuee Archive which comprises, among other things, interviews conducted with evacuees during the Second World War. The interviews were carried out by the Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies at the University of Reading. The collection mainly relates to evacuation schemes within Britain and the British children who were sent overseas to Canada, the USA, South Africa, and Australasia. As part of the Reading Connections project a group of volunteers have formed a Transcription Group and will transcribe the interviews in full. These transcriptions will then be catalogued and made publicly available. Also as part of the project, we will be conducting new interviews. These interviews will complement the different themes of the Reading Connections project including: Reading at War, Craft, Local Collections and Village Communities and we are set to interview a range of individuals from craftspeople to members of the Women’s Land Army. These will go far to further enhance our collections.

Phillippa Heath

Reading at War Project Officer, Museum of English Rural Life