Hot off the lorry: the Landscape Institute archive and library has arrived!

written by Nancy Fulford, Project Archivist.

We are really excited to welcome the archive, library and associated architect’s collections of the Landscape Institute at MERL. Earlier this year the Institute decided that we would be the new home for these collections which have largely been in storage and inaccessible since 2008.

The Landscape Institute Archive arriving at our Store

The Landscape Institute Archive arriving at our Store

The Landscape Institute  was founded in 1929 with a formal library established in 1967 and archive collections in the 1990s. The archive collections include architectural drawings, photographs, slides, project files, notebooks and scrapbooks and include the drawings and personal realia (such as drawing equipment) of founder member of the Institute and landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. The library contains over 15,000 books, journals and pamphlets which we will be starting to catalogue and make accessible over the coming months alongside archive cataloguing. The archive boxes are on the shelves and we’re making our way through the 75+ crates of books before moving on to the drawings.


These collections are an invaluable resource for researchers, landscape architects, picture researchers and those with an interest in landscape design, gardens and gardening. In our redevelopment we’re hoping to be able to show off the richness of our Archive collections, so look out for regular updates on the MERL blog which will include current research, cataloguing updates and highlights from the collections.





Project news: Rural images discovered: Colin Shaw

written by Nancy Fulford, Project Archivist.

A couple of weeks ago marked the end of the Rural Images Discovered Project which has seen over 15,000 prints digitised, and many more negatives and prints catalogued from the John Tarlton, Farmers Weekly, Peter Adams and Colin Shaw photographic collections.


I came to the Colin Shaw collection towards the end of the project and (in my opinion) we saved the best ‘til last! Colin Shaw has worked as both photographer and lecturer for over thirty years and has recently embarked on a new project looking at the use of the rural myth to promote national parks. His collection contains negatives and prints for two of his photographic projects: Farmwork and M40 Warwickshire.


The Farmwork project was undertaken in the mid-1980s. Shaw’s aim was to document the everyday lives of those working the landscape and in doing so dispel the myths of the peaceful rural idyll of the past and show the intensive labour and people needed in modern farming. From potato pickers, to pea swathe operators, a farm worker feeding calves to farmers inspecting hundreds of sheep at market, every black and white picture tells a story of farm workers and modern farming practice. You can see a selection of images on our online gallery.


M40 focused on village communities and rural practices and pastimes before and during the construction of the Warwickshire stretch of the M40 motorway in 1988. A family outing rabbit hunting with ferrets, bingo at the village hall and coffin building are just some of the activities documented in this collection.

Having these images now available to view on our online database will help visitors to gain a deeper level of access to our archives whether they are sitting in our Reading Room or at home on their laptop in Australia. They highlight the different stories that can be told by our Archives, and we hope to be bringing more of these stories out in our redevelopment of the Museum.




The MERL Classification – what it is and why we’re updating it

Project Officer, Greta Bertram, explains more about the work she has been doing to revise the MERL Classification over the last few months.

Classification systems are used by museums to organise data about their collections. The MERL Classification was devised by John Higgs, the first Keeper at MERL, in the 1950s. It was based on the idea that MERL is a folk museum and deals primarily with people and their lives, rather than with objects. As a result, the Classification of an object is driven by its sphere of use. The Classification was initially used for the Object Collections, and later expanded to the Photographic Collections, and was also adopted by other agricultural museums in the UK.

The MERL Classification originally had 24 primary headings, which could be sub-divided into secondary, tertiary and quaternary headings, each with a numerical notation. The Classification was intended to grow and develop with the expansion of the collection, and by 1978 it had expanded to 33 primary headings. A review in the 1990s reduced this down to 31. Today the Classification is only used for objects. Find out more about the history of the Classification here.

Over the past few months we have been revising the MERL Classification as part of the Countryside21 project. One of the aims of the project is to increase the accessibility of the collections by making it easier to search them. We’re intending to do this by improving the range and quality of the keywords we use when cataloguing objects. The MERL Classification will form the basis of a new set of keywords (find out more here), so it seemed sensible to ensure it was fit for current purpose.


Until now, the Classification has contained a mixture of processes and products (things to which the processes are done). We’ve decided to separate the two out, making the Classification purely process-driven, and to have separate thesauri/vocabularies for the products, e.g. plants, animals, materials etc. The Classification terms and the ‘product’ terms can then be added to the catalogue as keywords.

It took quite a long time and a lot of debate to decide on the primary and secondary terms for the Classification, and we also consulted the Rural Museums Network to find out how the wider sector uses and views the MERL Classification. (You can read more about this process here, here and here.) We have now settled on 19 primary terms. Each primary and secondary term has a scope note which states that the term is part of the MERL Classification and which details its numerical code, how the new term corresponds to the old Classification, definition/explanations about what the term covers, and whether the term should be used in conjunction with a plant/animal/product term list. We are now in the process of confirming the vocabulary lists, which is proving to be equally challenging.

We are hoping to start implementing all of the changes and adding the Classification/vocabulary keywords to Adlib in the very near future. You can read about some of the numerous complications and challenges to do with this here. We will also be publishing the revised Classification once we are sure that it works!

Volunteers’ Voice #6 – Student volunteers

At the beginning of a new University term, Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, talks about student volunteers at the University Museums and Special Collections.

It is the start of the academic year which for us at the University Museums means we have an influx of eager students willing to volunteer. With the current economic climate and the competition for work, volunteering is considered an excellent means of gaining crucial skills that will make you more appealing to employers. There are plenty of events where students can find out about opportunities. I was recently at the Reading University Students Union Volunteering Fayre, an excellent day that encouraged students to volunteer at a variety of organisations.

At the University Museums and Special Collections Service we have a long history of working with student volunteers. Students make up about half of our volunteers, they are fun to work with and provide new ideas and an open mind. I know there is talk within the sector of students being unreliable volunteers, in my experience they are very reliable and if they do prove unreliable in certain programmes then I think it is an issue with the volunteer programme and not the students.

A student volunteering at the MERL Village Fete. Stuart went on to work as a Museum Assistant at MERL before leaving to study for a PhD.

A student volunteering at the MERL Village Fete. Stuart went on to work as a Museum Assistant at MERL before leaving to study for a PhD.

Students quickly immerse themselves into our volunteer programme, volunteering in a host of roles including marketing, gardening, learning activities, large events, tour guiding and I even have the odd student volunteering with me! They are provided with training, support, an idea of the roles available to them within the arts and heritage sector and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow volunteers, such as parties, socials and group visits. We support many students into employment after they have graduated, providing references, giving career advice and sign posting students in the right direction.

The University also provides a fantastic scheme called the RED Award; this is an award aimed at encouraging students to volunteer and play a role in their community. This award is well worth the time because it officially recognises volunteering and is part of the final certificate students receive on graduating.

Of course students often disappear during the holidays and leave a hole in my volunteer programme; I fill this with students returning home to Reading who have a lot of time on their hands. Volunteering during the holidays for students is often a more enjoyable for them because they don’t have to deal with the stresses of studying, plus it gets them out of the house!

At the University we have been offering Museum Studies modules for several years from this term there is now a new Museums Studies undergraduate course which can be combined with Classical Studies or Archaeology. Students on these courses in particular enjoy the opportunity to get more involved with the museums and collections at Reading. The more experience a student gains during their time at University the higher the possibility of them gaining employment in their chosen sector or going onto further study within their area of choice.  One of my previous student volunteers, Charley, volunteered on various archive projects throughout her three years as a student. This experience helped her find employment and she is now working for Fishbourne Roman Palace. Many others have gone on to study at postgraduate level or to work in the sector.

It is our responsibility as an organisation to support young people in gaining this experience. Students and young people bring enthusiasm, energy and new ideas to an organisation and should be openly embraced.

Press release: Apples in abundance? Turn your surplus into juice at Uni Museum’s Apple Day, Saturday 19th October

Press release, October 14th 2013

Wondering what to do with the extra kilos of apples from your garden tree? The Museum of English Rural Life has the answer! Bring your surplus apples to MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19th October and watch special guest Richard Paget press them into delicious juice.

Apple schematic from the Herefordshire Pomona

Apple schematic from the Herefordshire Pomona

The Museum (MERL), which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, celebrates Apple Day as part of the popular annual celebration of English apples and orchards.

Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist and organiser of MERL’s event, said “Apple Day is one of the Museum’s most popular annual events. The different varieties of apples to taste are the stars of the show, along with traditional activities such as the longest peel competition and the apple and spoon races,  but each year we look for new activities to enhance the event. This year we are delighted to be welcoming Richard Paget of ‘My Apple Juice’ whose community ‘Apple Juice Project’ aims to help communities raise funds by turning surplus, often wasted, fruit from their gardens and local areas into juice. Bring your surplus apples to MERL on the day and see them turned into delicious juice!”

“This year visitors will also be able to see a cookery demonstration by Charlotte Fyfe, author of ‘The Apple Cookbook’ and taste freshly made apple fritters, take part in an apple study being run by academics from the School of Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy at the University of Reading,  and find out about The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent.

MERL Archives and Library staff will be on hand to show visitors photographs and beautifully illustrated texts from the Museum’s collections . Caroline said: “Visitors to Apple Day have the opportunity to see the rare and highly sought after first Herefordshire Pomona, as well as 1950s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food films about apple cultivation, and the strikingly illustrated Two Rivers Press book ‘Apples, Berkshire, Cider’ by Duncan Mackay.”

Apples Berkshire Cider by Duncan Mackay

Apples Berkshire Cider by Duncan Mackay

“Visitors to the event can enjoy tasting different varieties of English apples supplied by Cross Lanes Farm in Mapledurham, and the growers themselves will be on hand to discuss and sell their apples. The Conservation Volunteers will be back to help families make bee hotels and R&J Nickless beekeepers will be there to explain the importance of bees to fruit crops. Families will also be able to make badges with the Nicklesses and fluffy apple pompoms with MERL volunteers.

“The MERL shop will be stocked up with apple-based goodies including toffee apples, juices and chutneys’. Tea and delicious homemade ‘Country Markets’ apple pie and cakes will also be available in MERL’s ‘Studio Cafe’”

The Apple Day event takes place from 1 to 5pm on Saturday 19th October at the Museum of English Rural Life on Redlands Road in Reading. Admission is £1 for adults and is free for children. Everyone is welcome. Full details can be found on the MERL website

Media are welcome to attend. Contact Alison Hilton at or call 0118 378 8660

My Favourite Object #4: ‘By the Roadside’ cigarette cards

written by Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer.

Quite a few of my favourite objects in the museum were collected as part of the Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures project. The project began in 2008, with the aim of acquiring objects for the collections which build a picture of the twentieth century English countryside. A wide variety of objects were collected, such as a Corgi Toy combine harvester, a Farmer Palmer cartoon mug, and suburban railway posters advertising countryside rambles. More so than the rest of the collections, these objects often show ideas and representations of and about the countryside. I’ve chosen object number 2009/69 as my favourite – a full set of 50 Ogden’s cigarette cards, from the 1932 series ‘By the Roadside’. Each card depicts a place of historical or natural interest in or close to a town, with a colour illustration and description of the place on the reverse. The places featured on the cards range from all over England – and two from Scotland. Each illustration also has a small map showing how to find the place in relation to nearby larger towns. As former curator Roy Brigden pointed out in his own blog post about these cards, this implies that the collector could or should take a day trip to visit the featured place. Day trips in the countryside became possible for urban dwellers with the advent of the railways and later the motor car, and other objects in the Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures collection, such as a 1900’s travelling tea-making basket, point to this popular twentieth century pastime.

2009/69/9: Cigarette card, from the 1932 Ogden’s Series ‘By the Roadside’. This card is ninth in the series of fifty.

2009/69/9: Cigarette card, from the 1932 Ogden’s Series ‘By the Roadside’. This card is ninth in the series of fifty.

Day trips to the countryside are by no means a hobby of the past, either. My own favourite from within this set is the ninth card in the series, which features the wool market in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. I like this one in particular because it reminds me of regular and continuing visits to Chipping Campden with my Nan. I’ll admit we probably visit for the tearooms and shoe shop more than the wool market, but it is a fascinating structure that is just part of the great historical interest and beauty of the town.

For me, this set of cigarette cards is very much about the rural landscape and our interactions with it. The Our Country Lives project will tackle the challenge of bringing more stories about rural lives, people, and landscapes into the displays; the objects collected as part of Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures have a lot of potential to help draw out such themes. The current temporary exhibition at MERL is called Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and it features many of the objects collected as part of the project. There’s also a space for visitors to leave their own suggestions and experiences, all of which will feed back into the Our Country Lives redevelopment work.

Our Country Lives Update

written by Sophia Mirchandani, Katie Norgrove and Jocelyn Goddard, consultants working on Our Country Lives


We are founder members of Cultural Consulting Network, which provides professional consultancy services to the heritage and arts sectors. Specialising in research, evaluation, project development, funding and grants, we work closely with our clients to provide intelligent and workable solutions to suit individual needs.

We have spent many years working in the South East region and have seen the Museum of Rural Life change and develop over that time. We’re delighted to be part of the Our Country Lives team, continuing its progress with a new and exciting project.

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

Applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund go through a 2-stage process for grants at this level. We are currently in the middle – the development phase. This is the time for putting more detail into the plans, testing out assumptions, trying out new ideas and most importantly, talking to people. Once this has happened, we can produce an Activity Plan. This will be submitted as part of the 2nd round application. It will cover everything the Museum wants to achieve that will affect people, rather than buildings, objects or collections.

We began by finding out as much as we could about the people who visit MERL and use its collections – Why do they come? What do they like about us? What kind of people are they?  If you visited recently, you may have been asked to fill in a questionnaire to help us answer some of these questions.

Now we are moving on to think about the people we would like to visit and benefit from the collections, but who may need some changes to be made in order to make that possible or to improve their experience. Perhaps they only have a vague idea about MERL and what they might find there. Perhaps they would like more information about the objects in the displays, so that they can explain what they are seeing to their children. Or maybe they would want to get more involved – take part in a project or volunteer for an activity, for example.


If you would like to join in this kind of discussion, please get in touch with the Project Officer Adam Koszary at

Rural reads review #2 – The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

Rob Davies reviews the book discussed at MERL’s Rural Reads book club this month…

This month we read The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis. The book is comprised of two novels: While Following the Plough and Down to Earth, published as whole in 1973. It is an autobiographical account of Collis’s time working on the land during the Second World War. The need for farm labourers during the war was increased due to an entire generation of men at war, and as Collis was too old to join active service he opted instead to work on the land as part of the land army. Collis writes about his experiences, the people he met and the long days he spent working on the land.

The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Collis

The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

Before the war Collis worked in an academic environment, this is evident in his references to literature throughout the book and in the way he combines the hard heavy work with beautiful prose. He mentions Thomas Hardy who is perhaps one of our greatest writers of the rural nineteenth century countryside, and who played an important role in how we envisage rural history. His references transfer into the collision between romance and the reality of life in rural England. Collis directly addresses this issue throughout; in a section entitled Sheep he states “There is very little that is romantic about sheep, though for some reason they enter literature and painting in an idyllic manner not bestowed to an equal extant upon other stock, while it will be sometime before the shepherd loses his poetic place.”

An endearing element of the book and a level which I found enjoyable are his descriptions of the people he came across, people very different from the world he was used to. These are the working men and women of the countryside, not to mention the Land Girls. Collis provided the most vivid descriptions of the people he met and worked with. “He was a man in the fifties. His eyes were impressive in their mildness, but his mouth was large and ugly, partly concealed by a stumpy moustache.” For the group this really brought the book to life.

Collis’s anecdotes and descriptions of working on farms are fascinating; they provide a hands-on guide to farming by a beginner, his work and writings stretch from potato picking to the life and work of ants. This is a good read for someone who wants a personal experience of farming during the Second World War; the book isn’t driven by a story but purely by the work.

As a group we had mixed reviews about the book, some members could not warm to Collis whilst others found him utterly amusing. Not everyone completed the book and some found it difficult to engage with, whilst one member read the book at University.

Next month we’re reading Waterland by Graham Swift. See details on our website. Do feel free to pop along and chat about a book we’ve been planning to read since the book group began!