Weekly What’s On – 25th Nov to Dec 1st

What’s on at MERL this week?


Rural reads book club
Thursday 28th November, 5.30-7pm
Free. (£1.50 for tea & cake)
Drop in and join this informal group discussing books on a rural theme. This month the book we’ll be talking about is Trespass by Rose Tremain. As there is no meeting in December, we have already selected Lorna Doone, by R.D.Blackmore as the topic of our first meeting in 2014, on January 30th.

For details visit the Rural Reads page on our website



magic carpetToddler time
Friday 29th November, 10-11am£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we’ll be using salt dough models using butter stamps and moulds based on items you can see in the Museum.




HP christmas*New* Huntley & Palmers: a Christmas selection
25 Nov 2013- 5 Jan, 2014
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
This seasonal display in the Staircase hall of the Palmers’ former family home, shows off some of the visual delights in the University’s extensive archive of local biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers




Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.


MERL at the MA conference #2: Our Volunteer Coordinator’s view

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, writes up the session he led on ‘overcoming fears of working with volunteers’at the Museums Association conference…

I was one of a small group of colleagues from MERL who attended the MA conference earlier this month. I was there to lead a session entitled ‘Overcoming your fears of working with volunteers.’ The session was devised to extract concerns about working with volunteers, explore them and discuss how to combat those worries.

We began with some group work when each group was given a few children’s comics to create and visualise their fears of working with volunteers. This encouraged conversation and discussion between colleagues, as well as giving me a foundation to bottom out people’s worries and concerns.

One of the fears that arose was: “How do you address volunteers who do not dress appropriately for their role?” My answer to this was to use role descriptions and state in those that there is a dress code required to fulfil the role, also use training and induction to install a dress code. If a volunteer persists to dress unsuitably then you are within your rights to ask them to alter their dress code for the role.

From this point another discussion arose and that was the use of volunteer agreements. There is some debate in the voluntary sector over the use of these. A volunteer agreement is a signed document between the volunteer and a member of staff, stating that they are aware of what is expected of both of them. At the University Museums and Special Collections (UMASCS) at Reading we do not use volunteer agreements as I prefer not to enter anything that may be considered contractual; however there is lots of advice on how to write a volunteer agreement without using language that may possibly implicate a legal contract. We do, however, have one agreement form used by archive volunteers who may be volunteering with confidential data. This form states that they are aware of the nature of the material they are handling and that they are not at liberty to talk about it. The conclusion of this discussion was that the use of volunteer agreements are at times necessary for the role required.

Another fear that arose was: “Volunteer supervisors and managers are concerned about the length of time a volunteer stays within an organisation and sometimes it is hard to let go.”  My response to this issue was to suggest creating volunteer projects set within time restraints therefore managing expectations. I also suggested the use of role descriptions to manage time limits and volunteer responsibilities.

After my interactive element of the session, I invited Amanda Lightstone, Opening Doors Project Coordinator from the University of Cambridge Museums, and Gemma Waters, Museum Development Officer from Cumberland House Portsmouth, to talk about their experiences of working with volunteers. They provided anecdotal presentations about their work and explored good practice regarding recruiting and retaining volunteers.

I like to think the session left everyone feeling enthused and invigorated about working with volunteers!

If anyone has any concerns or worries about working with volunteers in Museums, I’d be happy to answer your queries below or you can contact me at r.j.davies[at]reading.ac.uk


MERL at the Museums Association conference #1: Our Curator’s view

In the first of a series of posts from our colleagues who attended the MA conference recently, Isabel Hughes, Curator of Collections and Engagement, summarises her talk on ‘Collecting Cultures’ and reflects on the conference as a whole…

The Museums Association Conference is the biggest gathering of museums people in the country.  Despite the cutbacks in the sector, this year there were 800 people in attendance.  The bulk of the sessions were divided between the themes of The Emotional Museum, The Therapeutic Museum and Tomorrow’s People.  Day one was rather taken up for me by the emotions involved in chairing one session, led with aplomb by our Volunteer Co-ordinator, Rob Davies, then dashing into the room next door to speak at a second one that was part of a formal announcement of a new round of Heritage Lottery Funds‘ Collecting Cultures programme which MERL has been part of for the last five years. I had been asked to share our experience of the programme, which has allowed MERL curatorial staff to acquire over 400 artefacts ranging from the clothes of a Newbury bypass protester to a Series 1 Land Rover!

MERL's Series 1 Landrover

MERL’s Series 1 Landrover

Our project, Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures, involved a number of us learning how to acquire through conventional means such as auctions, dealers and existing contacts but also to get acquainted with ebay and other online auction sites.  We had to think laterally about how to collect to show themes of the twentieth century such as the growth of the suburbs and the technology of intensive farming.  Through collecting more printed ephemera we were able to address protest including those at Greenham Common as well as those led by the Countryside Alliance.  Our project has heavily influenced how we think about collecting today – what was once seen as outside our remit, has often been reconsidered as we look more at the cultural and social significance of artefacts from the late 20th century.

Greenham Common poster 1982

Greenham Common poster 1982

My presentation was sandwiched between a rounding up of the first phase of Collecting Cultures and an announcement of a new round being open for applications.  Delegates were keen to know how our project had been conceived and developed.  One questioner from the floor was disappointed that he had not seen innovation in collecting.  This was puzzling for us, as we feel that we have been able to think anew about this, not least in the way we consulted in the galleries and via our blog on what visitors would like us to collect.  However, we also were clear that responsible collecting must be linked to an overall policy and we did not see this programme as being designed to ‘break the mould’ of that document.  When collecting, curators must always have an eye on the past as well as the future.

My speaking duties out of the way, I was able to sample the main themes properly which included a session on how different parts of the UK are planning to commemorate the First World War.  In Ireland the anniversaries will include the Easter Rising and the arrival of the Black and Tans.  There will definitely be a challenge in terms of therapeutic truth and reconciliation here.  I also attended a session that looked at what the future museums profession might look like.  All the panellists felt that the term ‘profession’ might not be needed and that we would be looking at a far wider range of skills.  The curators of the future would be truly international, very possibly trained in China, highly mobile with a working life consisting entirely of fixed term contracts.

MA Conference is always a good time to renew museum acquaintances, share the museum gossip and gather free stationery from the exhibition stands.  At an early evening reception I was told by one company that their prize of a mini ipad was definitely worth going for.  If I could just think of a suitable icon for my museum, the odds were strong for me to win it.  In the event, I went out for a meal instead.  The Conference also offers great opportunities to visit sites out of normal hours.  I managed to fit in a breakfast viewing of the powerful exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery of work by photojournalist, Tim Hetherton.  “You Never See Them Like This” was a remarkable set of images taken whilst he was lived alongside American soldiers stationed in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan.  Captured asleep, the soldiers looked like small, vulnerable boys, instantly recognisable to their mothers.  Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya in 2011.

Alfred Waterhouse and MERL

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

Buildings are, in most cases, more famous than their architects. Exceptions are rare, such as St Pauls’s Sir Christopher Wren, or Frank Lloyd Wright (and then my limited knowledge collapses..). One architect you may not have heard of, but whose buildings you certainly will know of, is Alfred Waterhouse, who built the 19th century family home MERL now lives in.

Foxhill House, now owned by the University, was once Waterhouse's home

Foxhill House, now owned by the University, was once Waterhouse’s home

The man himself: Alfred Waterhouse.

The man himself: Alfred Waterhouse.

Personally, I am not someone who usually takes notice of individual architects, but the sheer amount of buildings Waterhouse threw up around the country has meant I am often confronted by one of his piles wherever I go. While at the University of Manchester it was the gold-hued stone and red tile rooftops of Whitworth Hall and Manchester Museum which first introduced me to his work – Waterhouse, born in Liverpool, also built the similarly impressive Manchester Town Hall. Then, upon moving to London, he again confronted me with the Cruciform Building at University College, as well as his most famous and formidable creation: The Natural History Museum. I have, in fact, been following Waterhouse’s own professional journey; beginning in the North-West he then moved to London, before finally settling and retiring in Reading with his extended family, where he designed a number of buildings. The most obvious of his creations in Reading is the Town Hall, but he also constructed Old Whiteknights House and Foxhill House on the University’s Whiteknights Campus, using the latter as his own home.

L - The Natural History Museum, London (1880). R - Whitworth Hall, Manchester (1902).

L – The Natural History Museum, London (1880). R – Whitworth Hall, Manchester (1902).

East Thorpe, however, was not intended as a museum but as a family home for the prominent Reading businessman and high Sheriff of Berkshire Alfred Palmer, of the biscuit company Huntley & Palmers fame. It has gone through a couple of changes since Alfred Palmer donated the building to the University of Reading: from a Victorian Gothic Revival Town House it was converted to much-loved student Halls of Residence known as St Andrew’s Hall, and then in 2005 opened as the new home of the Museum of English Rural Life. The house has had a few additions through these changes: an extension of the building in 1962/3 and 1973/4 (see below), and the redevelopment of the gardens and construction of the main gallery for MERL in 2005.

The addition to the front of East Thorpe by the University.

The addition to the front of East Thorpe by the University.

Buildings dictate what happen within and around them through their structure and aesthetic, but they can only become significant through how we use them. As offices, the interior of East Thorpe is now fairly dull, but the exterior of the building, and particularly the internal southern part of the building, retain the grandeur of the original house. It allows MERL to tell the story of Alfred Palmer, Waterhouse and the function of a Victorian family home. We have done this through the ‘Victorian Life in the Palmer House’ activity for schoolchildren, the ever-popular MERL Victorian Family Christmas, and there is also a pop-up exhibition tomorrow focusing on the man himself and his work. The connection with Palmer also has extra significance as the vast majority of Huntley & Palmer’s archival material is held by the University’s Special Collections, to be enjoyed by the public in his very own dining room, now a reading room.

East Thorpe House (L) as it is today from the MERL garden.

East Thorpe House (L) as it is today from the MERL garden.

Next time you visit MERL it will be worth taking a closer look at the outside of our building and admire Waterhouse’s touches, such as the stained-glass windows, the patterned bricks or the sculptural chimneys. While we may not be as grand as the Natural History Museum, nor in fact be occupying a building even intended to be a museum, we are certainly grateful to be a part of one of England’s greatest architect’s creations.

Discovering the Landscape #1

written by Claire Wooldridge, Landscape Institute Library Officer.

Since the arrival of the Landscape Institute Library and Archive a few weeks ago, I have been immersed in a new world of international architectural design, rural development, urban regeneration and land art.

Initial sorting of the library materials is underway – we have received approximately 60 metres of books, periodicals and pamphlets.  Whilst complementing our existing holdings, particularly our MERL library books on topics such as gardening, land policy and the environment, this new material also prompts us to consider our MERL collections afresh.   The landscape is the backdrop to all aspects of rural life, but must also be seen as a worthy subject of consideration in its own right.

We have received a wonderful and varied mix of material, including twentieth century perspectives on the landscape, several beautifully bound nineteenth century books on gardening, a few rare books and works by some of the Landscape Institute big hitters such as Geoffrey Jellicoe and Sylvia Crowe.

Already a few gems have been unearthed which are featured in this post.  I particularly like the beautiful illustration of variegated pelargoniums from the 1930s and the colour chart issued by the Royal Horticultural Society and the British Colour Council.

Illustration of variegated pelargoniums from the 1930s.

Illustration of variegated pelargoniums from the 1930s.

Colour Chart issued by the Royal Horticultural Society and the British Colour Council.

Colour Chart issued by the Royal Horticultural Society and the British Colour Council.














You can also see examples of some of the strikingly illustrated nineteenth century bindings we have received, alongside literature on the 1951 Festival of Britain (the book shown here features its logo) which celebrated the centenary of the Great Exhibition, fitting in nicely with our Great Exhibition collection.

Some strikingly illustrated 19th century bindings, plus a volume from the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Some strikingly illustrated 19th century bindings, plus a volume from the 1951 Festival of Britain.

For rare book fans we have also received Instruction pair les Jardins Fruitiers et Potages printed in Paris in 1697 and a copy of Della Agricoltura di M. Giovanni Tati printed in Venice in 1556 to sit alongside the copy we have in our Reserve collection.

'Instruction pair les Jardins Fruitiers et Potages' printed in Paris in 1697.

‘Instruction pair les Jardins Fruitiers et Potages’ printed in Paris in 1697.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated developments with our progress on the Landscape Institute Library and Archive in the coming weeks.

'Della Agricoltura di M. Giovanni Tati' printed in Venice in 1556.

‘Della Agricoltura di M. Giovanni Tati’ printed in Venice in 1556.


Volunteers’ Voice #7 – Tour guides

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, talks about working with volunteer tour guides to make guided tours at MERL more interactive and engaging…

I had a meeting with my volunteer tour guide team last week which prompted me to dedicate this post to volunteer tour guides. Tours are an excellent way in which museums engage with visitors, bringing the collections alive and making the visitor experience all the more memorable. MERL has an excellent volunteer tour guide team who really are an asset to the museum. Volunteer tour guides are students, graduates, post graduates and members of the local community.

The team provides general 40 minute tours around the museum on weekends and for booked groups during the week. A special part of the weekend tours is a visit to the object store on the mezzanine floor, which is otherwise closed to visitors. This is where we keep all the objects that are not on open display and it’s a great opportunity for visitors to see behind the scenes. When I joined MERL in July 2010 there were only three guides who were providing all the weekend tours and they were using a set script. The small team was struggling and needed support. I set up bi-monthly meetings with the team which still continue.   I recruited new volunteers from the student body and the local community to boost the withering numbers of the team. At these meetings we discuss any problems, organise the rotas and it is a good excuse for a bit of socialising between the team.

The script had originally been devised by a consultant to highlight the main themes of the new galleries when MERL moved to new premises, and was designed to provide background information about the collections. From talking to the tour guides I realised the script was no longer working for training purposes or for the visitor experience. It was hard to allow for interaction between the tour guide and their group, or to tailor a tour to the interests of  the group.  So we decided to take a new approach. In order to personalise the experience, new volunteers are now encouraged to choose objects they would like to talk about within their tour.  The Museum is divided into sections and they choose a set number of objects from each section. They then research the stories behind their chosen objects. Each guide gives a slightly different tour but this means that the tour guide is interested in the objects they are talking about and that translates into enthusiasm and passion which hopefully rubs off onto the visitors.

The tour guide team on a CREW training day

The tour guide team on a CREW training day

To assist with the facilitation of training new guides and the implementation of the new tours, we used CREW who helped us to explore new ideas, increase our confidence, mould us as a team and think about where we as a team are going.  Since then we haven’t looked back; the team has continued to grow with new guides being trained at the start every academic year, which continues to boost the team bringing new life, ideas and providing visitors with more exciting tours.

Rural Reads Review #3 – Waterland by Graham Swift

Robert Davies, reviews our October ‘Rural Read’…

The book for MERL’s Rural Reads monthly book club last month was Waterland by Graham Swift. The book is set in the Fens and covers a time period of 200 years, successfully bringing the fens to life for the reader with vivid descriptions and endearing characters. For the scale of the time period the book is not as densely packed as one would automatically assume, the novel moves swiftly and smoothly, moving between different periods and is told by one narrator.

Waterland by Graham Swift

Waterland by Graham Swift


There are many elements and strands that contribute to the overall story that pulses through the novel. It is essentially a fictional family history and a history about the Fens. The story begins with the finding of a body and from there the story unfolds keeping the reader turning the page eager to know more. The author, Swift, speckles the novel with factual episodes that range from the construction of the fens to the life of an eel. The eel is the animal commonly associated with the Fens and slips through the novel with distinction. The discussion of the eel leapt from the page and into the debate during book group.

Swift deals with a multitude of themes within the book from murder, jealousy and love to the coming of age, and a major theme is loss. Loss of love, a way of life, children but I don’t want to give too much away. He also brings the Fens vividly alive. One would think he was a native of the land but on reading the introduction you discover he isn’t well acquainted with fens as you are led to believe with his fantastic writing. This is very interesting from a writing perspective; he poured his energy into his imaginative writing and not the research. Waterland still produced a positive response from people who are familiar with the Fens, which we believe is a sign of a good writer.

As a whole the group enjoyed the book, finding Swift’s descriptions and characters endearing, though there was one loose end which frustrated us a little. However, we thought the book to be a neatly bounded story that kept us engaged and entertained. It didn’t encourage any of us to visit the Fens, it’s not a book written to inspire people to visit the Fens as a holiday destination. However it did broaden our minds, engage us with a part of the country that we had not interacted with before and drew our attention to the life and times of eels!

The book to read for the ‘Rural Reads’ meeting on November 28th, is Trespass by Rose Tremain. Join us for an informal chat and a mince pie! For the months of December and January we have decided to Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore.

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Trespass by Rose Tremain


Picture of the month #5: Artist in butter

Caroline Benson, MERL’s Photographic Assistant has come across a most fascinating craft (which, sadly, definitely isn’t one which will be on display at our Traditional Craft Fair!) We didn’t quite squeeze this particular ‘Picture of the month’ into October, but I think it’s worth the wait!!

This month’s photographs are from a collection recently deposited at MERL. They show a craft, that I must admit, I didn’t know existed. They date from c.1906 and show butter sculptures made by William Burwell, who described himself as an Artist in Butter. The butter sculptures were sold for window decorations & for advertising & commanded quite a price, the basket of roses costing three guineas & larger window displays from between seven and fifty guineas. The sculptures were even exported, one going to New Zealand, where unfortunately the temperature was too hot & so it had to be held in a “cool chamber” until colder weather arrived. Mr Burwell displayed his work at exhibitions & we have a medal that he won at the Universal Cookery & Food Exhibition in 1907. The collection includes a number of glass plate negatives and photograph albums.

Artist in Butter - flower baskets - P BUR PH1_2

Artist in Butter – flower baskets – P BUR PH1_2


Artist in Butter - cockerel - P BUR PH1_1

Artist in Butter – cockerel – P BUR PH1_1




MERL Traditional Craft Fair, Nov 9th 2013

Greta Bertram, MERL Project officer and Heritage Crafts Association trustee, explains how our Traditional Craft Fair connects with MERL’s extensive craft-related collections…

It’s nearly time for the annual MERL Traditional Craft Fair, and this year we’ve got fifteen of our most skilled local craftspeople exhibiting (and in some cases demonstrating) throughout the Museum.

As ever, we received more applications than we have room for in the Museum, so we had a tough time during the selection process. It’s really hard to make a decision when all the work is of such high quality.  We decided that we wanted to represent a range of crafts, both hard and soft, and also wanted to choose crafts that reflect some of the Museum’s collections. We also wanted to have a mixture of old and new faces.

In the entrance to the Museum we have a beautiful stained glass window designed by Susan Moxley to commemorate MERL’s move to its present home in 2005. The window is based on Michael O’Connell’s 1951 Festival of Britain Wall hangings. There are some amazing stained glass artists in Reading, and this year Nicola Kantorowicz and Brenda Graham will be joining us at the Craft Fair.

Nicola Kantorowicz FlowerHeads

Nicola Kantorowicz FlowerHeads

Anyone who’s been to MERL will notice that we have a wide selection of wood crafts on display, including greenwood crafts such as bowls, handles, rakes, besoms and walking sticks. Martin Damen, spoon-carver, and David Glover, bowl turner, are two of the makers representing the wood crafts.

Walking round the galleries you’ll notice that there aren’t really any textiles on display but that’s not to say we don’t have any! Textiles are very vulnerable to decay, so our textile collections are kept in storage. They include clothing, bed-coverings, wall-hangings and rugs, and various objects connected to spinning, sewing and knitting. Caroline Marriott, rag-rugger and weaver, Cathy Seal, knitter and felter, and Romilly Sawnn, natural dyer, will be representing the textile crafts.

Martin Damen spoons

Martin Damen spoons

We also have a lot of domestic objects in the MERL collections but, again, many of these are not on display. We have plates, dishes, jugs, cream pots and even a giant teapot! We’ve got three ceramicists at the Craft Fair this year – Philip Miller, Ursula Waechter and Katie Smith – each using very different techniques.

And there’s still a few more craftspeople to mention – Kate&Anna, furniture, Cathy Newell Price and Matthew Hitch, jewellers, R & J Nickless Apiaries, honey and beeswax products, and Fong Wong, handmade accessories and craft kits.

The Craft Fair is taking place on Saturday 9 November 2013 at 11.00–16.00 (admission is £1 for adults and children are free!). Come along to pick up some beautiful and unusual gifts, talk to the makers, watch some craft demonstrations, and even have a go yourself. To find out more about the Craft Fair visit the MERL website, and find out more about the makers on the MERL Facebook page. Also, why not take a look at our online catalogue to find out more about the craft collections at MERL.