Experts look deep into Historic World Objects

As the Reading Connections project draws to an official close, a number of consultancy visits have been run as part of its ‘World Cultures’ theme. The most recent of these was a seminar to assess the potential of the Historic World Objects collection for future community engagement, but we’ll hear more about that in a blog post to follow. A wide range of people have been involved in organising and attending these sessions, and towards the end of February one of the Reading Connections interns, Farah Qureshi, helped facilitate an object research visit. She’s written a post about her experiences of the day:

‘As part of the Reading Connections project, a selection of historic world objects collected and donated to Reading Museum between the late-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century have been highlighted for further study. Including clothing, weapons, musical instruments and tools, the objects represent historic international cultures and give us an insight into the cultural interests and travels of Reading residents.

As an intern involved in Reading Connections, I joined in helping while museum consultants visited the Reading Museums stores at the end of February to have a close look at these objects. Two of eight consultants who will contribute to the World Cultures theme of the project, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, were invited to Reading on the basis of their expertise. Len (freelance, formerly Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter) is predominantly a specialist in West-African material, and Marina (the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford) is mostly a specialist in South American material, although their knowledge seemed to know no limits!

After studying Anthropology for my University Masters, I appreciated the opportunity to spend two days working with Len and Marina, learning from Reading’s ethnographic collections. Both consultants have worked extensively with ethnographic collections across the world, and had an impressive wealth of information to share. While they analysed a range of objects, I found that my knowledge of world cultures was greatly enhanced observing the functionality of objects, which often shed light on cultural practices. I wrote down their observations, preparing notes to be attached to database records, and enjoyed being involved in their discussions exploring the purposes of the objects.’


This ‘executioner’s sword’ from the DRC seems to have been a hit with multiple consultants and project staff!

Historic World Objects: photography and beyond

Felicity McWilliams – Project Officer

This summer was very busy for the Historic World Objects team. By the middle of July we had pretty much put together the final shortlist of the six hundred objects from the Historic World Objects collection that will be featured on the new Reading Museum online catalogue. The next stage was to make sure there are good quality photographs of each of the objects to accompany their online catalogue records.

Photography in progress

Photography in progress at the Reading Museum store.

To this end, Greta, Ollie and I spent a significant portion of the sunny months of July and August inside Reading Museum’s remote store, an Aladdin’s cave of objects in a warehouse-style building on the outskirts of Reading. Buildings designed for objects rather than people don’t always make fantastic working environments, but the lack of natural daylight did mean we could control the light applied to the objects during photography very well! We had two days of training from the University’s photographer and used new photography equipment supplied as part of the project – a fancy DSLR camera, a pop-up illuminated background, and flash lights with soft-boxes and umbrellas. We hope that, once they’ve been tweaked during the editing process, the new photographs will really make a valuable addition to the online catalogue.

A recently photographed object from the Historic World Objects collection.

A recently photographed object from the Historic World Objects collection.

I am now moving on with the research phase of the work on this collection. A new member of the team, Adam, will also be working on this with me for one day a week. We will be carrying out further research into the objects, documentation and collectors. This research will then enable us to write short pieces of text to accompany the basic object information on the online catalogue records. Adam and I will be starting by researching some of the collection’s known collectors. These include Dr Joseph Stevens, the first curator of Reading Museum, and Robert Gibbings, an artist and wood engraver who collected objects whilst travelling in the Polynesian Islands. Last Friday Adam and I attended a Museum Ethnographers Group study day in Birmingham, entitled ‘Researching Donors of Museum Ethnography’. The day was full of really useful tips and advice, and we made some real progress researching some of the donors whose names we had taken along to the event. We hope that some of the objects in the HWO collection will be brought to life in new ways by the stories of the people who collected them and brought them to Reading.

Reading Connections – April to July update

It has been a busy few months for the project team – working out what we need to do, how we are going to do it, and then getting stuck into actually doing it.  We have also been skills sharing and recently the team learnt about writing blogs and social media from project team members Greta and Felicity, and Liz McCarthy UMASCS Librarian.

There have been a few exciting new developments we’ve posted blogs on previously – the new camera and the creation of the A-Z list of the archives of Museum of English Rural Life list and two interns starting on the project, one based at MERL and one at Reading Museum.  The interns will post a blog on their experiences on the project soon.

The Brook, Chalgrove

Updates on the project themes:

Reading at War

Evacuee Archive – the cataloguing of the collection is on-going.  We are working to make the archive available by October.  The catalogue will be available on our online database and the archive will be available for consultation in the Reading Room

World War 1 commemorations – Hayley is setting up a Flickr site.  The new intern Ceri will be assisting with adding information for each photo .  The University’s book of remembrance of those members of The University College Reading who fell in the War 1914-1918 is now available on the online database with images attached.  Hayley is also working on a WWI temporary exhibition.


Greta has been working on cataloguing corn dollies at MERL, so far enhancing 142 records.  She has also been working on craft connections aspect of the theme and connecting with new craft groups and re-establishing links with previous MERL contacts.

World Cultures – Historic World Objects at Reading Museum

Felicity, Greta and Ollie have been working towards the main task of creating an online portal to a selection of 600 Historic World Objects.  So far the target of 2738 objects have been checked, 1000 objects have been long listed and then 600 of these shortlisted.  Felicity, Greta and Ollie have recently had photography training from University photographer Laura Bennetto, and have started photographing objects, photography is nearing completion.

Local Collections – photograph digitisation and cataloguing

Danni has digitised 1386 and catalogued 1067 Collier negatives.  Sophie has been long listing negatives of Reading Chronicle at Reading Museum and has begun scanning them, completing approximately 250 so far.  Danni has also been sharing her digitisation skills with Sophie and helping her to get started.

Village Collections

Ollie has recently been to East Hendred, with Bridget Yates who is working on researching Lavinia Smith.  They have lots of leads to follow up relating to The Lavinia Smith collection at MERL.  There will be a seminar in the autumn series on this. 

Great progress has been made on the project by the whole team. Look out for more posts on different aspects of the project and we’ll give an update again later in the year.

Digitising MERL’s Local Photographic Collections

Written by Danielle Mills, Digitisation/Data Officer for Reading Connections.

Local photography is one of the themes of the Reading Connections project and a large part of my role is to digitise and catalogue some of MERL’s local photographic collections. We are making these images available to view online via our catalogue Adlib to increase accessibility to these wonderful resources for local history.

I am currently digitising the Collier Collection. Phillip Osborne Collier (1881-1979) was a commercial photographer and postcard publisher working in Reading from around 1905. The collection consists of approximately 6000 glass plate negatives showing Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire from 1905 to the 1960s.

The collection is split into three sections, early (1905-mid1930s), late (mid1930s-1960s) and miscellaneous plates (1905-1960s). I have scanned and catalogued the early Reading plates (P DX323 PH1/E150) and I am now making my way through the early series alphabetically by place name, from Abingdon to Yattendon. Whilst scanning Ascot negatives I noticed an image of the racecourse dated 1911-1912, and as Royal Ascot is this week I thought I’d share it!



Ascot Racecourse, 1911-1912 (P DX323 PH1/E6/10)

Ascot Racecourse, 1911-1912 (P DX323 PH1/E6/10)


Enlarged section of the image above to show spectators and police officers in more detail

Whether it’s a 1905 snapshot of the road that I drive down to work everyday, the beautiful architecture of churches and buildings in Reading, or people in Berkshire caught in front of the camera lens whilst going about their lives, each day I am coming across amazing images and I hope to share more of these with you over the coming year.

The Evacuee Archive

From the album of Rosemary Maud Goddin, a teacher evacuated with her school to Gamlingay, Cambs

From the album of Rosemary Maud Goddin, a teacher evacuated with her school to Gamlingay, Cambs

Zoe Watson, Archivist and Project Manager:

I’m working on cataloguing the Evacuee Archive as part of the Reading Connection project.

It is a collection of memoirs, interviews and material relating to former evacuees and war-children gathered 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 during the Second World War.

The British Government scheme to evacuate children from cities started in September 1939.  Children, usually without their parents, were sent to areas of Britain that were considered safer from bombing and the effects of war, these were often rural areas.  Smaller numbers of children were sent abroad.  They were housed with strangers, some of whom were reluctant to take them.  Some children did go in private arrangements to friends and relatives, and some went with a parent.  Children received varying levels of treatment from these ‘foster parents’ and some children were kept in groups in hostel-like conditions.  Stories in the archive range from the heart-warming where the kindness of the hosts meant that the children’s new lives in the countryside were as happy as they could be in the circumstances to heart-breaking cases of mistreatment and cruelty. The length of stays varied from weeks to years, and often evacuees had to move billets.

 It is an interesting and thought provoking collection.  I came across this interview with a former evacuee; he was interviewed in the late 1990s and shows the effect on him all those years later.  He was evacuated from West Ham, London to Hemel Hempstead:

‘I recently visited the Imperial War Museum, well one of the lectures was on the psychological aspects of evacuation.  I certainly do not have any bad memories of that time but it has left me with one curious feeling.  All the time I was evacuated I used to tell myself that one day the war would be over and I could go back home.

After the war we were living in another part of London and then I made my way to where I used to live.  The whole area had been completely obliterated in the first few days of the Blitz.  I was quite unable to find the spot where my house once stood.

This happened more than 50 years ago.  I have lived in many other places.  I now have a grown up family of my own, I am a grandfather.  I have a lovely house but somehow I am still waiting to go home.’

Please note the collection is currently closed for cataloguing.  Contact us if you would like more information.