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: research and beyond

Although we’ve been pretty quiet on the blog post front, plenty has been going on in the World Cultures part of the project since last autumn. Adam and I have been busy researching the 600 objects that were chosen and re-photographed for inclusion in Reading Museum’s new online catalogue. This is quite a varied process as there is a lot of variety in the amount of information already available about the objects. Some records might tell you who collected the object, when, from where, what it is, and what it was used for. Others are less informative; my personal favourite is the record that simply states ‘This is a mat’. As ever in documentation and research, you are rather at the mercy of whatever information was originally collected about an object at the time it was donated to the Museum! This isn’t to say that the sparser records are lost causes – if anything, they’re the most satisfying to research, for those ‘breakthrough’ moments when you make a connection or identification.

Mozambique door rubbing

A rubbing of a door carving from a hut in Mozambique, sent to the Board of Study for the Preparation of Missionaries as a teaching tool, researched during a recent consultancy visit.

To date we’ve researched around 475 objects, which puts us just over three-quarters of the way to meeting our target. Unfortunately this does mean that we’re now getting to all the trickier objects that, earlier on in the process, we put aside for later! The research process is generally pretty fun though – especially as I seem to have the capacity to become interested in just about anything. As just a small sample, we’ve researched: traditional Burmese puppet theatre, Tunisian ceramics, Zulu bead-work, West African musical instruments, Northwest Coast Native American basketry, Scandinavian birch bark shoes, Portuguese ox yokes and Venezuelan devil masks. Keep an eye out for announcements about the launch of the online catalogue, if you’d like to see the rest of the 600 objects!

Historic World Objects consultancy

Investigating an object described as a ‘Congolese executioner’s sword’ during consultant Chris Wingfield’s visit.

The other main focus of activity over the past few months has been planning the Historic World Object consultancy. We’ve invited six ethnographic specialists to visit the collection and offer advice on research, conservation, and the potential of the collection for future engagement projects. These will take place between now and the end of April, but the first three consultants, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, and Chris Wingfield have visited over the past few weeks. I will write a blog post about the outcome of all the visits closer to the end of the project. In the meantime you should hear soon from one of the interns working on the project, Farah Qureshi, who helped out with one of the consultancy days, about her experience of working on this part of the project.

Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer


Reading Connections – the half way point

The project has reached the half way stage and the project team have achieved a lot so far:

Reading at War

Phillippa Heath and, project volunteer, Jeremy Jones have been to talking to Tony Blackburn on BBC Radio Berkshire, and have been interviewed by the Reading Post about the World War I Memorial book held by the University.  People have been discovering the Flickr site and adding more information on the people in the memorial book enriching the information already held.

Zoe Watson and Danni Mills hosted a visit from the Berkshire World War I project.

The Evacuees Archive is now available for research use.

Project intern Laura Farrell has been researching using the Evacuees Archive, and Huntley and Palmer archive for performance pieces by Dr Teresa Murjas.

Ian McDonnell Jessiman_10r

Ian McDonnell Jessiman evacuated to Vancouver, Canada in 1940 (D EVAC A/2/23)

Village Communities

Dr Ollie Douglas and with Dr Bridget Yates recently gave a talk entitled Looking for Lavinia: An American collector in 1930s in Berkshire, which generated good feedback and some new leads to follow up on.


Greta Bertram recently gave a successful talk to Southcote Library.  She has now finished cataloguing all clay, leather, metal, stone and straw crafts (leaving just textiles and wood crafts to go), and has enhanced craft catalogue records by adding images to them.

Historic World Objects

With photography work completed over the summer, all 600 objects selected for the online catalogue now have at least one high quality photograph. Research is well underway, with project officers Felicity McWilliams and Adam Koszary having fully researched 120 of the 600 objects so far. Plans are also underway for museum ethnography specialists to visit the collection and offer advice about its potential for further research or community engagement.

Local collections

Danni Mills has reached the milestone of digitising 4000 images, and has catalogued 2 500 images from the Collier collection.  Sophie Fitzpatrick has been working on Reading Chronicle glass plate negatives, and approximately 500 images have now been researched and prepared on MODES out of approximately 2000, with the help of project interns Sarah Beattie and Evelyn Williams.

We are looking forward to achieving even more by the end of the project.

Zoe Watson 

Project Archivist/Project Manager

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.

Reading Connections and Craft: Baskets, corn dollies and more!


The basketry collection at MERL.

One of the five themes of the Reading Connections project is craft, and this is what I’m working on when I’m not helping Felicity with the Historic World Objects work at Reading Museum. In my spare time I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), a charity which supports and promotes traditional crafts, so I absolutely love working on anything to do with MERL’s craft collections.

MERL has a fantastic array of traditional craft products and tools in its collections, from such crafts as blacksmithing, wood turning, carpentry, lacemaking, leatherwork, pottery, stonemasonry, straw crafts, and wheelwrighting, amongst many others. My particular favourite is the basketry collection – we have over 600 tools, baskets and other basketware objects.

As part of Reading Connections I’m going to be building on the cataloguing work done on earlier projects at MERL (such as A Sense of Place) to enhance the database records for the approximately 1300 objects which are classified as ‘craft’ but have yet to be catalogued thoroughly. I’m hoping to add details about provenance, use and historical context, and all of this information will be immediately available to the public via MERL’s online database. If I get the chance, I’d also like to add more specialist information, such as details to do with materials and techniques, but this requires more research as I’m not a craft expert.


MERL 86/124/2. The ‘Ambridge Circle’ corn dolly made by Alec Coker.

I’ve started by enhancing the records for the Alec Coker Collection of corn dollies and other straw-work items. Personally, I’m not much of a fan of corn dollies, but I do appreciate the skills involved in making them (take a look at the Guild of Straw Craftsmen). Alec Coker developed an interest in the craft when he first saw corn dollies used as props on set in the 1930s when he worked at the BBC, and devoted his retirement from 1965 to his death in 1986 to spreading knowledge of the craft. I did get quite excited when I came across a script from a 1972 episode of The Archers in which Alec Coker appeared as a corn dolly lecturer who was asked to identify the local ‘Ambridge Circle’ – a corn dolly he then created.

I’m also going to be working on building links with craftspeople, especially from Reading and the surrounding areas, and with those whose craft we hold in the collections at MERL. I’m hoping to raise awareness of our collections and to open dialogue with local craftspeople, with the long-term aim of possibly working together in the future in events or on skill- and knowledge-sharing projects. Exciting stuff!

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.

Historic World Objects at Reading Museum

written by Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer for Reading Connections.

One of the main strands, or themes, of the Reading Connections project is ‘World Cultures’.   A large part of this will involve the work that is planned for Reading Museum’s Historic World Objects, a small collection of just under 3000 ethnographic objects.  I’m based at MERL, but I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next few months at Reading Museum, as I’m primarily going to be working, alongside colleagues from both Museums, with this diverse and interesting collection.

The Historic World Objects collection was largely acquired from the late-nineteenth century to the 1950s.  Most of the objects were donated by local people who had gathered artefacts during their own travels abroad.  Smaller numbers were collected during the course of overseas expeditions, and others were donated as part of large collections, including the Museum’s founding Bland and Stevens Collections.  The Museum officially stopped acquiring objects for the collection in the early 1950s, and a number of significant items were sent on loan to the Horniman Museum.  Many of the objects are used in Reading Museum’s popular school loans box service, and some objects continued to be collected specifically for this purpose after the 1950s.


A Venezuelan Devil’s mask from the HWO Collection. Used as part of the School Loans Service.
Image © Reading Borough Council 2013.

The main objective for this aspect of the project is to create an online portal to a selection of 600 artefacts from the Historic World Objects collection.  This will essentially act as a ‘shop window’ for the whole collection, being a largely representative sample in terms of geographic origin and ‘type’ of object.  The online database will be searchable in a traditional way, but users will also be able to browse sets of objects by ‘topic’.  For the past month or so, my colleague Greta and I have been familiarising ourselves with the whole collection and starting to think about what those topics might be, based on the variety of objects in the collections and potential links between them.

We have also started the first main task, which is to work through the whole collection and carry out some basic ‘data cleansing’.  This involves a general tidying up of records – adding and moving relevant fields and adding easily available contextual information to the basic description about each object.  At the same time, we are starting to narrow down the collection to a long list of 1000 objects and ‘tag’ those records with potential topics and themes.  Once this phase of work has been completed (hopefully by the end of May), we will start to discuss the long list, carry out more in-depth research and consultation, and produce our final short list of the 600 objects that will be visible online.

But we’ll continue to let you know how we’re getting on in more detail as we go along, and hopefully have some interesting stories to tell you about the objects and some of the people who brought them to Reading.