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


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.

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.

Introducing the Reading Connections Project

 Welcome to the Reading Connections Project blog.

The purpose of this blog is to keep you updated with progress on a new project called Reading Connections. So let’s start at the beginning….

The Arts Council England Reading Connections project aims to develop community engagement through the creation of digital resources, oral histories, exhibitions around the theme of “Reading at war” and local Reading photography based on a partnership between the Museum of English Rural Life and and Reading Museum.

The Renaissance funding will enable both museums to share skills and collections to create a programme which reaches out to and engages with local communities and MERL will work with Reading Museum on a new programme for 2014/15, including a series of “Reading at war” events commemorating the First World War Centenary in 2014.

We are in the initial stages of this exciting project and this blog is going to be an important tool for providing an insight in to the work we are doing and for sharing news on all aspects of the project.   Evacuees at Reading Station

The Reading Connections Project team will be blogging regularly on different elements of the project all linked to four themes: Reading at war, Craft, World cultures and local collections. Look out for posts on  WWI commemorations, local photography, crafts, objects, oral history, evacuees, local collections, exhibitions and much more!

For now why not visit our project page www.reading.ac.uk/merl/research/merl-readingconnections.aspx and look out for our next blog coming soon.