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


Intern Laura Farrell writes about her research


I have spent the last few weeks at MERL carrying out research for two unusual exhibitions which are to be mounted by MERL in collaboration with Reading Museum in the Spring/Summer of 2013. The exhibitions, which will involve elements of film and/or live performance, will be produced by Dr Teresa Murjas (Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance), James Rattee (PhD film-maker) and Sonya Chenery (PhD performance-maker) from the Department of Film Theatre & Television at the University of Reading. The research I am carrying out will form the basis for their two interactive, installation-based pieces.017

Postcard from child – D EVAC

My first area of research is the Evacuee Archive – MERL holds a very large collection of film, photographs, press reports, correspondence and documentation of all kinds relating to the evacuation of civilians during World War 2, as well as hundreds of interviews with evacuees (and, occasionally, with those who played host to them, taught them or otherwise played a part in the vast and complex operation of evacuating over three million people).

What has struck me most is the diversity of the evacuee experience. Like many people, I have long been familiar with the classic image of evacuation – large groups of small and bewildered children, probably from the East End of London, shepherded onto trains with gas masks in hands and labels tied to their coats to be billeted with strangers at an unknown destination. Delving into the MERL archive reveals the experience of less well-documented evacuee groups – the many who were “privately” evacuated to family and friends both in Britain and overseas, those sent overseas as part of the government’s CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) scheme, the smaller children evacuated with their mothers, and the many who spent the war in temporary boarding-school -style “camp schools”. The evacuees’ stories range from the touching (happy days helping on the farm, lifelong friendships made with loving ‘second families’) to harrowing accounts of neglect and abuse, and everything in between.

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D EVAC A/1/384

My second area of research is the archive of Reading’s famous Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, with particular reference to their role as a major supplier of army biscuits to the forces during World War 1. Reading Museum has an intriguing collection of original army biscuits (some still in excellent condition after a hundred years, which gives some idea of their hardness) which were carved, decorated, painted, written on and sometimes sent home as mementos, love tokens and even picture frames by bored Tommies at the front. The Huntley and Palmers archive at MERL sheds light on the manufacturing processes involved in producing thousands of tons of the biscuits, with handwritten recipes, correspondence with the War Office, and a great deal of documentation showing how the company struggled to fulfill their orders as ingredients and even packaging became more and more scarce and a significant proportion of their workers left to join the forces.  I hope the exhibition will shed light on this period of Reading’s industrial history, as well as giving the public a chance to see some truly fascinating objects.

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Laura Farrell

Reading Connections Intern

Internship blog post – Evelyn Williams

I have been volunteering at Reading Museum since 2010 first as part of the Reminiscences Project, then Historypin and most recently Revealing Reading’s Hidden History. Through the internship, I have the opportunity to work full time for a period and see a lot more of how the Museum works. I hope to become more professional, efficient and effective in museum related activities and tasks. The role will also contribute to my own personal development. Working with colleagues from MERL adds a stimulating dimension to this project.

Research on the Reading Chronicle Collection continues and I am working with Project Officer Sophie to prepare information relating to the images that have been selected for an online catalogue.

My time is split between Reading Library where the microfilm copies of the Berkshire Chronicle are available to look at, and Reading Museum where I add to the data and information already held about the image.

Berkshire Chronicle has transported me back to the Reading of 1939 just before and just after the outbreak of the Second World War as it reports on how the outbreak of war affects life in the town. Some familiar local places, people and events crop up but I am learning all the time about Reading’s history.

Some stunning images have been selected to be showcased online covering the length and breadth of life in Reading. From these I have selected an image from June 1939 of the staff of the Berkshire Chronicle before they set off on their annual outing. The scene is in Valpy Street outside the Berkshire Offices and alongside Reading Museum, with Blagrave Street in the background, everyone is dressed up and ready to go.

 

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Evelyn Williams

Project Intern, Reading Museum

 

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.