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.’

Sword

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 collections and rural communities

What did the Canadian-born Berkshire landowner Horatio Bland (1802-1876) have in common with an American called Lavinia Smith (1870-1944) who came to live much of her life in the English countryside? Furthermore, what did both these people share with the eccentric rural writer of the interwar period H. J. Massingham (1888-1952)? The answers to these questions are really threefold. Firstly, all of these people were enthusiastic collectors of artefacts and each established their own private museum to house the objects they acquired. Secondly, they all lived in the heart of small and tight-knit English village communities. Thirdly, the remaining objects from each of their respective collections came ultimately to reside within the bounds of Reading itself.

Objects colelcted by Lavinia Smith at her home in East Hendred, pre-1944

Lavinia Smith gathered over 360 rural artefacts, some of which are shown here in her home at East Hendred, Oxfordshire. The collection was bequeathed to Berkshire Education Authority and transferred to the Museum in 1951.

So, the common thread of the English village museum serves to link three otherwise distinct characters and their collecting habits. This link provides the basis for a strand of activity to be developed as part of Reading Connections. This activity was primarily conceived as a route to more meaningful exploration of the principal founding collections of MERL—those of Smith and Massingham. Indeed, the plan was to use these two sets of material to examine the ideas of community that lie at the heart of the wider project, as well as to reconnect items within one or both of these collections with people now living in the places where they were originally gathered. However, preparation for MERL’s involvement in work on Historic World Object holdings at Reading Museum led to the unexpected realization that the founding collections of MERL and Reading Museum both lie in village community contexts.

Drawing of Massingham's private museum called 'The Hermitage''

Drawing by Thomas Hennell showing the interior of the hut built to house Massingham’s collection, circa 1930s [MERL 85/59]

The Horatio Bland collection at Reading Museum was gathered during the nineteenth century and was first displayed in the Berkshire village of Burghfield where Bland himself owned a small estate. Although he amassed objects from all over the world, these nevertheless found their first shared home in a rural locale. H. J. Massingham and Lavinia Smith gathered collections that were not only very much of the countryside but were also first housed and located in the countryside. Smith appears to have collected most of her objects during the interwar period and largely from the area surrounding East Hendred, Oxfordshire (then in Berkshire), later storing and displaying them in a cottage called Downside. At around the same time Massingham used contacts in the village of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, to gather many objects that he then assembled in a purpose-built shed called ‘The Hermitage’, which was located in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire home.

Aspects of this strand of Reading Connections will build on work carried out as part of another recent project called A Sense of Place, which served to better catalogue and enhance the digital presence of object holdings such as those relating to Massingham and Smith. MERL has already built links with present-day museums that exist in both Winchcombe and East Hendred. Since the commencement of Reading Connections, a fresh conversation has begun in earnest with our colleagues at East Hendred Heritage Trust who manage the volunteer-run Champs Chapel Museum. With the help of them and with the assistance of museum historian and consultant Bridget Yates we hope to improve our knowledge of the objects that Lavinia Smith acquired. We are keen to record the memories of people who remember these items at Downside, build links with the descendants of those from whom she collected, and gain a more nuanced understanding of the original contexts in which the objects would have been used. We hope that this engagement will form a working model for future partnership work relating to the Massingham objects, that we would hope to develop in collaboration with the Winchcombe Folk and Police Museum.

Downside House, East Hendred, Oxfordshire

Downside House, East Hendred, Oxfordshire – the onetime residence of Lavinia Smith as it appears today

What about the rural origins of Reading Museum and the history of Horatio Bland and his private collection? Well, this project has provided an opportunity for us to begin to consider both how and why he might have collected the objects he did, and to explore how they might have been stored or displayed before they were gifted to the Borough of Reading in 1876. For now, evidence of the pre-Reading context is fairly sparse. Nevertheless, an 1892 sale catalogue of the grounds of his onetime estate at Hillfields, Burghfield, provides a brief description of the building that once housed this fascinating hoard:

‘Detached Brick and Slated Building erected for a Museum, but now available for a Billiard Room, 25ft. by 20ft. and a Smoking Room, 20ft. by 14ft., with a Room over, 40ft. by 20ft. and dry Basement Storerooms, Cellarage, and a fireproof Room fitted with Milner’s fireproof door.’

At least one object from Bland’s original museum—a large Japanese temple bell dating to 1746 [Ashmolean EAX.3888]—was never transferred to the Borough, instead serving for many years as a school bell in Burghfield. This object later found its way into the collections of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, as well as becoming a symbol of the community itself. Indeed, a local newsletter—The Newsbell—was named after it and discussions of life in the community still elicit memories of the bell in use at the school.

Horatio Bland's handwritten will, pre-1876

Opening lines of Horatio Bland’s will, in which he names his nephew Thomas Bland Garland as principal beneficiary. His nephew later presided over the gift of the Bland collection to Reading Borough Council

Watch this space to see what other stories these activities we might unearth about these different collectors and the things they acquired, and what we find out about the ways in which rural communities played a significant role in the history of collections like these, with their village and countryside origins.