Guest post: My year in the Harris Garden by Jenny Halstead

Our first guest post is by Jenny Halstead, whose exhibition, An artist’s year in the Harris Garden opened at MERL last week. Jenny is a local artist who spent a year as Artist in Residence at the University of Reading’s beautiful Harris Garden.  The resulting exhibition showcases the paintings and sketchbook studies which take us through the seasons, moods and development of the Garden over the duration of a year from 2011. The exhibition at MERL is a wonderful example of collaboration between one of Reading’s best-known local artists, the University and the Museum, and is already attracting people with an interest in Jenny’s work and the Garden, but who may never have thought of visiting MERL before. We are delighted that Jenny has agreed to give us an insight here into how the exhibition evolved…

My year in the Harris Garden, by Jenny Halstead.

The exhibition is up … on the newly painted panelling in the Studio at MERL. Seeing one’s work all together and displayed for the first time is always a surprise.

Jenny installing the exhibition in the Studio at MERL

Jenny installing the exhibition in the Studio at MERL

I had planned the arrangement on paper, and hoped it would all fit as well when on the wall…and it did!   I wanted to create the transition and flow of the seasons around the two walls of the room,  starting with the process of people planting in ‘Forward Looking’ then into the cool colours of winter – the snow and the frost giving way to the acid greens of spring, followed by the vivid colours of summer, before drifting into the oranges and earth colours of autumn. During my year as Artist in Residence, I’ve recorded the Harris Garden over the changing months, its development and the people who work in it. This I have done by using  sketchbook studies rather than photographs (although a camera is useful on occasions for extra reference).

Jenny sketching in the Harris Garden

Jenny sketching in the Harris Garden

When I draw, I engage with the subject, the eye observes, the brain absorbs and the hand holding the pen translates. The drawing is a thought-process and adding a tonal wash gives me enough information to make  finished paintings in the studio later.

Most of these sketches are on a continuous loop playing on a monitor as part of the exhibition. The iPad is text–free and encourages the visitor to flick through the images of paintings and, when tapped, to hear my voice describing either the scene or my reasons for choosing to paint it and choosing the medium to be used. It has been fun planning the exhibition, choosing the selection of paintings and sketches to be used in the book An artist’s year in the Harris Garden (published by Two Rivers Press) and writing the accompanying text, with extra input from other invited contributors.

Jenny signing copies of the book at the Private View

Jenny signing copies of the book at the Private View

The year has been a fantastic one and I have so enjoyed all aspects of the project and the process, and hope the visitor enjoys the  exhibition as much as the Garden itself. Jenny

Toddler Time inspired by Jenny's exhibition

Toddler Time inspired by Jenny’s exhibition

For full details of ‘An artist’s year in the Harris Garden’ and related events, including a afternoon sketching workshop in the MERL garden, Jenny’s open studio as part of the Whiteknights Studio Trail, visit the exhibition page on the MERL website. You’ll also be able to meet Jenny at the MERL Village Fete tomorrow, Saturday June 1st…

OCL at the Village Fete 2013

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.

The MERL Village Fete is only a few days away, and we are already preparing our hi-vis jackets, gazebos, bunting and scones, as well as harnessing an army of volunteers and staff to ensure everything runs smoothly.

The focus of this year’s Fete is on rural crafts and traditions, and we have an exciting bunch of craftspeople either demonstrating or offering opportunities to make your own crafts. We have a wide array of exhibitors this year, meaning you can taste some cakes while learning about your family history, or feel the sparks from some blacksmithing to the sound of the Walham St Lawrence Silver Band. Then there’s also the hog roast (with a vegetarian option), locally brewed beer, leather-working, Jenny Halsteadwoodworking demonstrations, and of course, morris dancing, a raffle, and a cake competition – plus much, much more.

Enjoying the entertainment at last year's Village Fete

Enjoying the entertainment at last year’s Village Fete

As well as all these options there will also be a chance for you to influence the future of the Museum of English Rural Life. We are at a stage where we are keen to learn about what ‘rural life’ and ‘the countryside’ mean to our visitors, and whether our plans for the museum are on the right track or whether you think we are missing something. The questionnaires are very short, but your responses will be a huge help to us. A team of volunteers, myself and a few others will be at the fete gently persuading visitors to give us their views on what they think of the museum, and how it could be improved. We can also tell you about our plans for Our Country Lives, and answer any questions you may have about the redevelopment, so please come and see us! Our gazebo will be in the middle of the field, sandwiched between the Facepainting and the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research!


Focus on Collections: These wheels were made for rolling…

written by Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer for A Sense of Place, Countryside21, and Reading Connections.

‘Focus on Collections’ will be a regular feature examining our staff’s favourite objects in the museum, as well as anything interesting we find during research.


Visitors to MERL will know that the wagons form a large part of the current displays in the gallery.  Many are grouped around the wood and metal sections, but they are all over the gallery, most noticeably high up on the ‘rails’.  They are a hugely important part of the collections, so they will of course feature in the redisplay (not to mention the fact that, given that they’re so big, there’s a limit on choices of where to put them).  The plan for the new galleries will involve a way to highlight these wonderful vehicles more, and some of the wagons might soon be on the move to the proposed extension out at the far end of the gallery.  Grouping some of them together in this way may allow different stories to be told, such as the regional variation and adaptation to local landscapes evident in wagon design.

Given that I have been working on the A Sense of Place  project, one of my favourite things about the wagons is how you can see the effects of place and landscape on their design.  Stand between the Cornish wagon and Shropshire wagon in the gallery and you will start to see what I mean.  The Cornish wagon is much smaller in scale, has small narrow hoop-tyred wheels, tall ladders and rope rollers at the back.  These features make it perfect for the Cornish landscape – a small wagon for the narrow country lanes, and tall ladders and rope rollers to secure the load because the lanes are often steep.

Wagons for blog

The Shropshire wagon (MERL 59/219) on the left, in contrast to the Cornish wagon (MERL 62/530) on the right.

The Shropshire wagon looks almost comically large in contrast, and is painted bright yellow (which is apparently traditional for Shropshire wagons, though I’ve yet to be able to find out why).  It has very wide strake-tyred wheels, with two rows of strakes.  Hoop tyres, as on the Cornish wagon, are formed of a continuous hoop of iron, put onto the wheel when hot so that it shrinks and secures the rest of the wheel’s components tightly together.  A straked wheel, in contrast, has numerous arched ‘shoes’, called strakes, nailed around its rim.  Because these don’t shrink onto the wheel in the same way, a tool called a ‘samson’ is used to pull the rim sections tightly together before each strake is nailed into place.  The museum has a samson, which you can see in the display case of wheelwrighting tools not far from the Shropshire wagon.   The two rows of protruding nail heads on the wagon’s wheels provide crucial extra grip for the wet, clay-like soil in Shropshire.

If you go to the Museum’s online catalogue, you can find the records for the Cornish and Shropshire wagons, as well as all the other wagons on display.  These records were ‘enhanced’ as part of the A Sense of Place project, and it’s great to think that some of the work from that project might be feeding into the changes happening at MERL over the next few years.


5 minutes with… Stuart McKie

Written by Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer

This week I have managed to catch Stuart McKie,  our Admin and Operations Assistant, on a rare moment when he’s not running around the museum preparing for an event or showing visitors round. Stuart has only been in this particular role for two months, but he’s been involved with MERL for over two years, first as a volunteer tour guide, then assisting in the archives, followed by 6 months as an assistant volunteer coordinator.

His current role sees him assisting in every facet of the museum –from guided tours, visitor services, corporate hire to collections care – you name it, he seems to have a hand in it!

Stuart (left) sorting crockery donated by the public for MERL's Village Fete last year.

Stuart (left) sorting crockery donated by the public for MERL’s Village Fete last year.

What are you working on this week?

I am mostly working on getting ready for the MERL Village Fete, which is a week this Saturday. The fete is our biggest event of the year, and organising it takes months of preparation and planning. As the Museum’s general assistant, I am doing anything from making badges for staff and volunteers, to working out how many tables a beekeeper might need!

On top of this come my usual weekly tasks of sorting out daily admin things, ensuring the museum and garden are clean and tidy, and looking after visitors and staff. This week in particular, I have been helping with putting a new exhibition by Jenny Halstead up in the Studio, which looks fantastic.

Probably the best thing about this job is that every day I get to see new people discover this museum, and the incredible objects we have on display. We have something for everyone, and the fun part for me is taking them around the museum, and bringing out the parts that different people can relate to.

How are you involved in the Our Country Lives project?

With the Our Country Lives project, we are aiming to look again at how we bring this collection to life, and really get people involved in the stories our objects can tell. In my positions as a tour guide and on the front desk, I am helping to get more information from our visitors about what they think about MERL, how they find us, and why they come.

I am also helping the curators and conservator in assessing how the new displays will work. This week we measured up one of our wall hangings from the 1951 Festival of Britain, in the hope that we can get it out of storage and into the gallery once the museum is redesigned. It’s an exciting time to be part of MERL, and I can’t wait to see how the project pans out!

Measuring up the 1951 wall hangings

Measuring up the 1951 wall hangings

MERL and the Great British Sewing Bee

written by Claire Smith, Visitor Services Assistant & Learning Assistant


Great British Sewing Bee

Did you watch the Great British Sewing Bee? I’ll admit that I was sceptical at first, not being a fan of “reality” television, but I have to confess I’ve been glued to every episode, and was delighted to see Ann’s years of experience win her the trophy. As a dressmaker myself, I’ve been very impressed by the wide range of skills demonstrated by each of the participants, and their ability to stay calm under pressure.

I first became involved at MERL thanks to my passion for sewing. I visited one weekend, and was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a guided tour that took us into one of the museum’s open storage areas, where I was able to see the extent of the smock collection. I wrote a post about it on my own blog, and was contacted by the Assistant Curator who invited me to get involved as a volunteer. A week or so later I found myself working in the museum alongside another volunteer, helping to record the measurements and condition of all of the smocks.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the fact that because most of the museum’s smocks pre-date the domestic sewing machine, they’re almost all made entirely by hand – not only the smocking and embroidery, but also the long, functional seams. When I tried my hand at a bit of smocking for myself, I was surprised by just how slowly the work progressed. You certainly couldn’t run up a smock in the measly four hours allocated to the Sewing Bee finalists to make a modern man’s shirt!

Close-up of smock

Close-up of a smock from the MERL collections

A couple of weeks ago at MERL we were delighted to host a group of visitors from New Stitches Magazine, all of whom had been watching the Sewing Bee with great interest, and were fascinated not only by the range of objects we were able to show them from our textile collections, but also with our sewing machines, which range from domestic models to very specialised industrial equipment. My personal favourites from the objects brought out for the group are the Dorset Buttons – another hand-sewing technique that I tried out after having seen the collections for myself.

It’s four years since my first visit to MERL, where I now work as Learning Assistant and Visitor Services Assistant. My experience volunteering with the smock collection led directly to me volunteering in other areas of the museum that I also found interesting, and now part of my role is to create family craft activities which are inspired by the museum’s collections.

The sewing machines, smocks and other textiles collections are currently housed in our object stores on the mezzanine level at the museum. Currently, the only way to access those collections is to come on a guided tour and ask your tour guide to include the store in your tour, or if you wish to study the collections in more details, to make an appointment with a Curator. It’s a shame they are not currently more accessible, but as part of the Our Country Lives project we’ll be looking at ways that these fascinating collections can be incorporated into the main displays. The more interest there is in them, the more likely this is to happen, so leave a comment & let us know if you’d like to see more of the textile treasures.

So if the Great British Sewing Bee has inspired you to dust off your sewing machine and have a go, why not come and see the MERL smocks? Who knows where it might lead you!


5 mins with…Judith Moon

written by Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer


This weekly series of interviews with MERL staff will focus on the day to day work of everyone involved in one way or another with the Our Country Lives project. As the project picks up momentum, more and more of what goes on behind the scenes will be about change, development and forward planning, but in the meantime, work goes on as usual and these posts will shed light on what keeps us all busy!

My first ‘victim’ is Judith Moon, who will be a familiar figure to almost everyone who has visited the Museum since we moved to our new home in 2005. Judith is our Visitor Services assistant who juggles answering the phone, running the shop, taking event bookings, answering email enquiries, and of course – welcoming every visitor through the door!


Judith on Apple Day shop stall

Judith on the Apple Day shop stall

What are you working on this week?

I am particularly busy with the shop, reviving the displays after being off sick for a while and returning to discover shelves and stock somewhat depleted! There’s lots of ordering to do and programming new stock into the till. It’s a busy time in the run up to some big events, so I’m thinking about where to put new stock – including the cards we’ve had made exclusively for the John Tarlton photography exhibition. It’s all about merchandising and changing things around to keep the look fresh. I’ve just gathered some gifts and cards together for Father’s Day, for example, just to remind people! My head is full of layouts and ideas for where to put the cards to go with Jenny Halstead’s exhibition and the books for the Poetry Festival. I’ve also got to make sure that I’ve got enough stock to sell in my ‘satellite’ shop at the MERL fete. It’s a good job I’ve got some great volunteers who help me out regularly!


What will be your involvement with the Our Country Lives project?

We hope that part of the development plan will include extending the shop into the courtyard at the entrance to the Museum, so I’ve already been able to talk to designers who came to assess the possibilities when we were submitting the Round 1 application to HLF. It will be great to have more space for displays and I’m already thinking about what I would need to improve the shop. The aim is also to create a better entrance area to eliminate some of the bottlenecks that happen during events, and to make it more welcoming for visitors. We’ll be looking at visitor flow and how people will need to use the new space.


The courtyard at MERL

The courtyard at MERL


Volunteers’ Voice #1 – Introducing Rob and the MERL volunteers!

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.


Hello and welcome to my first post. I’m Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator at MERL. I have been working with volunteers for the past four years in various organisations, from community radio stations to museums.

Rob Davies, VOlunteer Coordinator with Jen Woodams and Kaye Gough, two long-standing MERL volunteers

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator with Jen Woodams and Kaye Gough, two long-standing MERL volunteers


I work with volunteers across UMASCS (University of Reading’s Museums and Special Collections Service) which consists of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), The Cole Museum of Zoology, The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Typography department and the Special Collections –  so the roles and volunteers are vast and varied.

In these posts I’ll be focussing mainly on volunteering at MERLVolunteers are the life and soul of our organisation. Without our dedicated team of volunteers we would not be able to deliver half of what we do. Our volunteer profile ranges from students, graduates and volunteers from the local community. Volunteers carry out a range of roles and work on all kinds of projects, including tour guiding, gardening, archiving, collections support and marketing.


Staff and volunteers at MERL celebrate achieving the Investing in Volunteers award with Sire David Bell, Vice-chancellor of the University of Reading

Staff and volunteers at MERL celebrate achieving the Investing in Volunteers Standard with Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading


In April 2012 we were awarded the Investing in Volunteers Standard by Volunteering England. This is a nationally recognised standard that states we employ good practice within our volunteer programme. We are constantly striving to improve and develop our volunteer programme, provide new opportunities for volunteers and work with partner organisations. I have recently completed an Arts Council England joint skill sharing project with Portsmouth Museums Archives and Visitors Services.

The purpose of this regular feature on the Our Country Lives blog is to share my experiences of working with volunteers at MERL, to highlight the work they do to support our activities and showcase their achievements. The volunteers will be playing a huge part throughout the Our Country Lives project. In the early consultation stages, I will be training as many as possible to help with audience research, so you may meet more of them in the Museum (and further afield!). Their own views will also be important as they are an vital stakeholder group. I may even be able to persuade some of them to contribute to this feature!

I hope you enjoy my posts on the world of volunteering. I welcome your thoughts and feedback so if there is anything you would like me to discuss in future posts please let me know.

Craft Collections and Craft Connections

Written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer for A Sense of Place and Countryside21.


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 (plus many many more!). Many of these objects are on display in the Museum’s gallery, and visitors to MERL can also watch videos from a project called Rural Crafts Today, showing ten contemporary traditional craftspeople at work (short versions of these films are also available online).

The craft collections are one of the things that first attracted me to the MERL, and my first visit to the Museum was to interview the former Keeper, Roy Brigden, about craft and intangible heritage in museums. In my life outside MERL I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. The HCA aims to support and promote traditional crafts as a fundamental part of living heritage in the UK and to ensure that those craft skills are carried on into the future. I’m always on the look out for potential collaborations between MERL and the HCA, and there are a lot of crossovers in the work that I do. During the sixteen months I’ve been working at MERL I’ve catalogued a good proportion of the craft objects, and undertaken engagement activities with basketmakers in my MERL-HCA capacity. You can find out more on the Sense of Place blog.

Photo: James Fletcher

Prince Charles and Kirstie Allsopp at the Craft Skills Awards.

Last Thursday I attended the inaugural Craft Skills Awards, a national suite of awards to recognise best practice in passing on craft skills. The awards were set up by Creative & Cultural Skills and partner organisations, including the HCA. The prizes were awarded by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales – Patron of MERL, and President of the HCA. The categories included ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in the Workplace’, ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in an Educational Setting’, ‘Encouraging Craft Skills in an Informal Setting’ and ‘Engaging New and Diverse Audiences in Craft Skills’. You can find out more about the awards and the winners, and watch a great video about why we should support craft, here. I was lucky enough to meet the Prince and to say thank you for giving a wonderful speech in which he quoted some of the findings from a new piece of research which I’ve been involved in, Mapping Heritage Craft, highlighting the issues faced in skills transmission. Both the Craft Skills Awards and Mapping Heritage Craft also highlight the vibrancy of the traditional crafts sector, as there is a mistaken tendency to think that these crafts are dying out and are no longer part of our contemporary rural (and urban) landscape. We’re hoping to be able to reflect this is in the new displays at MERL, and I think it would be great if we could find a way to present some of the more ‘intangible’ elements of traditional craftsmanship as well as the tangible objects.

I will also be running the HCA stand at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 1st June, with the help of a local spoon carver. This year’s fete has a traditional crafts theme and there will be several craftspeople demonstrating their skills on the day. Come along for a great day, a look round the museum and to find out more about the HCA!

MERL project news #1 – Hugh Sinclair papers now available

written by Hayley Whiting, Hugh Sinclair Project Archivist


The papers of Dr Hugh Macdonald Sinclair DM, DSc, FRCP (1910-90) are now available at MERL.  This marks the end of nearly five years of work by me, the Hugh Sinclair Project Archivist. It has been a very interesting, challenging, and rewarding project funded by the Hugh Sinclair Trust at the University of Reading and I’m going to give an overview of the archive and the work I have done.

First a quick look at the career of Dr Sinclair, as many of you will not have heard of him but may have benefited from his ideas. Dr Sinclair was an academic and pioneer in human nutrition who is best known for his theories on Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), pioneering the link between Omegas 3 and 6 and human health. In 1979 he took this idea to extremes and undertook his “Eskimo Diet Experiment”. Dr Sinclair consumed only seal meat and fish for 100 days and tested his blood clotting times each day. This was not funded as the ethics committees consulted were not convinced this self-experimentation was a good idea!  Dr Sinclair even had seal meat cooked for him at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a fellow, which was not popular with the other diners.

Hugh Sinclair teaching

Hugh Sinclair teaching

The Hugh Sinclair Archive covers this work on EFAs as and all areas of his life and career. The most significant part of the collection are the papers of the Oxford Nutrition Survey. Sinclair was asked by the government to set up the survey which worked throughout the Second World War carrying out nutrition surveys on many different groups for the Government to ensure the health of the nation. This work was also carried out in Germany and the Netherlands after the war and was vital in assisting the starving people there.

Hugh Sinclair

Hugh Sinclair at work

After his time at Oxford Sinclair set up the International Institute of Human Nutrition at his home in Sutton Courtenay and spent the rest of his life trying to raise funds for what he saw as a key research institute for the study of nutrition. The IHN never became what he had hoped for but research continued there until the early 1990s. As I mentioned earlier, Dr Sinclair was a fellow at Magdalen College and taught many students there. He is also remembered by staff and students at the University of Reading where he was a visiting fellow during the 1970s and 80s.

Dr Sinclair’s career never fulfilled its potential and when he wrote about his theories on EFA’s he was often ridiculed. However, towards the end of his life, he began to receive the recognition he deserved and many conferences were held in his honour.

After that whistle-stop tour of Sinclair’s career let me briefly outline the work I have done on the archive, In 2008 I began work on this project and was presented with over 1100 office storage boxes of papers with no list or real sense of what they might contain. So began the long process of going through every box and writing a list of their contents. Every day would bring a new surprise and my favourites have to be a large plastic mackerel, photographs of Dr Sinclair’s time overseas in the 1940s and a diary kept by Sinclair’s mother detailing his first few years with all the baby and toddler milestones described. My least favourite would be envelopes of hair and a half-full container of 30 year old mackerel oil!

Once the listing was completed I moved on to cataloguing material identified for permanent preservation and disposing of the rest. There were boxes of material to return to originating institutions such as Magdalen College and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and a great deal of routine material as Dr Sinclair was quite a hoarder. Now this work is done the papers are catalogued and stored in archivally sound folders and boxes.

Hugh Sinclair's office

Hugh Sinclair’s office

It is rewarding to know that these papers are finally available and I’m excited to see what research will be done using them.

Professor Ian Rowland, Head of the Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition at the University of Reading, said: “The archive of Dr Sinclair is potentially an extremely valuable, untapped source of data for researchers in the field of nutrition. The ONS surveys were of contemporary importance in ensuring adequate nutrition of the population, but may be of equal significance in the present day.”

The papers can be viewed in the reading room at MERL.  Please note that restrictions may apply to some records.  The full catalogue can be found on the University’s online catalogue  Select the ‘Archives – Museum of English Rural Life’  box and search for the catalogue reference D HS.

All enquiries relating to the papers should be sent to or visit our website for details of visiting the reading room


Research tip #1: if in doubt…

Here is the first in what we will become a regular series on the blog – research tips from the MERL library and archive team.

Trying to find out about collections can be a difficult and frustrating business. Our online catalogues and finding aids are now very large and while it’s great to have so much information available at your fingertips, it can also be quite confusing. There is some really good guidance available on our website at but sometimes you may find that the catalogue doesn’t give you the answer you expected. So our first research tip is this: if in doubt, ask! Our reading room team is there to help, and while we can’t promise to do your research for you, we are always willing to provide help in searching the catalogues. Contact us on 0118 378 8660 or


 Cooper's Dip