‘Rural reads plus’ review: The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator

SC booksLast month we read The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch; this was the first book we’ve read since the group became ‘Rural Reads plus…’ and we expanded our remit to include books inspired by the University’s Special Collections. The Unicorn was a perfect read to bridge both rural reads and books from the Special Collections, as it is set in the countryside, and it has added a whole new dimension to our reading.

The Unicorn tells the story of Marian who takes the post of Governess at Gaze Castle, which is located in a remote rural area of the country. Marian finds herself wrapped in a labyrinth of mysteries and lies circulating around the lady of the house, Hannah who she believes is being kept prisoner by her estranged husband.

The book can be considered gothic; it is full of gothic tropes such as: mystery, a remote house, a strange ethereal character and someone from the ‘outside’ world entering this strange reality. It is also about spirituality which the character Hannah embodies in her irrational behaviour and the way the other characters think about her. Hannah becomes a canvas for everyone, a model for everyone to project their desires upon.

We had a very lively discussion about the book; some of us thoroughly enjoyed it and are now inspired to read more Iris Murdoch, where others didn’t like it so much. For some members of the group the characters grated on them; the character of Effingham caused a stir amongst the group and he was berated a fair amount. I personally enjoyed the entire book and was gripped all the way through. I think the subtle and vague approach to the major themes was clever.

We compared certain aspects of The Unicorn to Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier, a book the group read last year. In particular the remote countryside which is a metaphor for the isolation and imprisonment for the inhabitants of both Gaze Castle and Manderly. The book as a whole has so many different influences, from Austen to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Those who didn’t manage to finish the book decided to continue reading it, after listening to our conversation. I would recommend The Unicorn but I’m not sure if every member of our book group would! For the month of November we’re reading The Beetle by Richard Marsh.




Weekly what’s on: 24th to 28th November

Although the MERL galleries and garden are currently closed for redevelopment, there are still events and activities taking place at the Museum and Special Collections. Below are details of this week’s events. Further details of forthcoming events can be found on the MERL What’s On pages or on the Special Collections pages.


H and P christmas biscuitsHuntley & Palmers: a Christmas selection
25 November to 23 December
Mon-Fri 9am to 5pm
Staircase hall, Museum of English Rural Life

This seasonal display shows off some of the visual delights in the University’s extensive archive of local biscuit manufacturer, Huntely & Palmers.


SC booksRural reads plus…
Thursday 27 November
Free, drop-in (£1.50 for tea and biscuits)
Staircase Hall, Museum of English Rural Life

As MERL is now closed until early 2016 to allow work on the Our Country Lives redevelopment project to take place, the popular Rural Reads book club is expanding its reach to draw on the University’s vast Special Collections for reading inspiration, with the potential to read anything from Ian Flemming to Mills & Boon, chosen by you. The book to read for the November meeting is The Beetle: A Mystery by Richard Marsh. Everyone is welcome to come along and join in an informal discussion in the atmospheric setting of the beautiful Victorian Staircase Hall. Visit the ‘Rural Reads plus‘ web page for full details

Town and Country: William Shenstone & Leasowes Park

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

Halesowen's Leasowes Park in the winter.

Halesowen’s Leasowes Park in the winter.

How interdependent are town and country? How do they rely on each other, and where does one end and the other begin? It is a theme we’re exploring in great detail for Our Country Lives and, considering around 90% of English people live in urban areas, a very relevant one. I wasn’t expecting, however, that my own town would ever factor into the discussion. Halesowen is part of the Dudley borough in the West Midlands. It is decidedly post-industrial and urban, despite sitting on the edge of a greenbelt. However, it also has a wooded, scenic park at its heart which began as one of the first landscaped estates in the country, perhaps even the world. Begun in 1743, Leasowes Park has managed to weather industrial revolution (including having a canal run through it), its encirclement by the West Midlands conurbation, a golf course development and the infamous town planners of the mid-20th century.

An aerial view of Halesowen, with Leasowes Park in the upper right corner.

An aerial view of Halesowen, with Leasowes Park in the upper right corner.

It was designed and built by William Shenstone (1714-1763), who began modelling the Leasowes estate on scenes inspired by pastoral poetry when he inherited the land as a dairy farm. His ashes are now contained in a sizable urn displayed in the Norman parish church of St John, and for his trouble also has a Wetherspoons named after him. Shenstone was among the first to conceive of a garden as a curated journey, pacing walks around the estate with built features and enriching the views with quotations from classical authors as well as his own writings (we have collections of his work in the University’s Special Collections). His Elegy XXI, written in 1746, could very well have reflected his vision for Leasowes:

Lord of my time, my devious path I bend

Thro’ fringy woodland, or smooth-shaven lawn,

Or pensile grove, or airy cliff ascend,

And hail the scene by Nature’s pencil drawn.[1]

The University of Reading holds Shenstone's books of poetry.

The University of Reading holds Shenstone’s books of poetry.

Leasowes still contains fringy woodland, smooth-shaven lawns and pensile groves, but he combined this natural landscaping with romantic structures such as urns, bridges and even a ruined Priory, constructed from the rose-red sandstone nicked from the ruins of Halesowen Abbey. Visitors came from far and wide to visit this landscape garden, helped in part by printed engravings which attracted figures such as Prime Minister William Pitt, Benjamin Franklin and American president Thomas Jefferson. A friend of Shenstone wrote:

‘Born to a very small paternal estate, which his ancestors cultivated for a subsistence, he embellished it for his amusement; and that in so good a taste, as to attract the notice, not only of the neighbouring gentry and nobility, but almost of every person in the kingdom, who either had, or affected to have, any relish of rural beauties: so that no one came to see the noble and delightful seat of Lord Lyttelton at Hagley, who did not visit with proportionable delight the humbler charms of the Leasowes.’[2]

4505015163_8729283651_zThe estate also had a profound effect on the burgeoning English landscape style, and particularly so on Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose tercentenary we will be celebrating in 2016. Landscape Architecture holds particular interest for MERL as we hold the Landscape Institute’s archives. The Institute was founded only in 1929, and work to improve the planning and design of the urban and rural landscape, so we’re delighted to hold their fascinating archives and library.

Leasowes remains a popular attraction for the local area, providing an oasis of natural calm sandwiched between dual carriageways. It was on one of these dual carriageways recently when I had the juxtaposed views of the Black Country sprawl spread out on my left, and on my right a horse grazing in woodland. Horses are a recent addition thanks to a recent HLF grant that has brought the park back to its original form, restoring paths, cascades and reintroducing cattle as well as horses.

A 1748 engraving of Leasowes Park, and the recent restoration of the cascades on the right.

A 1748 engraving of Leasowes Park, and the recent restoration of the cascades on the right.

It is in this way that the Leasowes estate encapsulates for me the strange relationship between town and country. Shenstone’s designs are an idealised, man-made manifestation of landscape, and one which pre-empts the long development of English gardens and country estates. When built, Leasowes was an escape into pastoral fantasy but now, trapped in a town, it is for many people the only countryside they know. The idea of the countryside can mean many things to different people – it could be a place of work, a place of relaxation, a place of sport; it could be down the road, it could be half an hour away; it could be local farmland, it could just be a local park; and for some few people, it is something they have only ever seen on television. Exploring what the countryside means to different people through how we view and perceive it is something we are exploring in great detail as part of Our Country Lives, and for me Leasowes Park is a perfect case study.

[1] Shenstone, W., ‘Elegy XXI’, The Poetical Works of William Shenstone, Esq., London: Alexander Donaldson (1775).

[2] Graves, R., Recollection of some particulars in the life of the late William Shenstone, Esq., London: J Dodsley (1788).

Changing Faces: Dismantling the old Museum

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

The Museum has now been closed a little over two weeks, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy behind the scenes. Although visitors to our Archive & Library, steered through the shop to our tranquil Reading Room, may be entirely unaware of the scale of the work being done to strip away the old materials and objects from our galleries.


The changes within the galleries has been quite dramatic..

The physical work has been a massive logistical challenge and all credit should go to our Conservation Team, which is composed of our Conservator, a couple of staff members and volunteers (plus other colleagues when they have a moment). MERL is fairly unusual for a Museum of its size because we don’t have an offsite Store where we can keep our objects while work is ongoing. Although we considered hiring external storage we didn’t think our large objects, sturdy as they look, would survive the move without being damaged. As such, everything that is small has been removed, recorded and moved upstairs while we play a delicate game of Tetris with the remaining larger objects we cannot carry upstairs, or which we simply don’t have the room for.

So far we've managed to fill two skips with refuse!

So far we’ve managed to fill two skips with refuse!

Objects have been carefully packed into one side of the Museum.

Objects have been carefully packed into one side of the Museum.

As everything gets tidied away, however, it has become very clear that our building, constructed in 2004, is now a blank slate for our redevelopment. Without the objects we are left with grey floors, white walls and open spaces which we are eagerly filling with new stories and themes on English rural life.

Work in the galleries is almost ready for the builders to move into our garden and begin construction on the extensions to the Museum, which we foresee  being finished in Spring 2015. After that our fit-out contractors will take their place and fill the Museum with plinths, cases, signs and objects ready for our re-opening, which may take until early 2016.

Don’t worry though, we will be keeping you regularly updated here on the blog, tracking both the progress of the work within the galleries as well as some of the conservation work that goes on in a project of this size.


Discovering the Landscape #8: New Pinterest board

Written by Claire Wooldridge, Project Senior Library Assistant: Landscape Institute

The Landscape Institute collections are exciting and visual, as can be seen through the wealth of images we have used in this ‘Discovering the Landscape’ series of blog posts.  Now we have created a new Pinterest board dedicated to the Landscape Institute on MERL’s Pinterest site.

Pinterest is a great way of grouping together images from webpages on a virtual pinboard.  A screenshot of the new Landscape Institute board can be seen above. It is essentially a more visually pleasing way of bookmarking interesting content that you find online, as is discussed by my colleague Adam here.

If you are already on Pinterest then please follow us, or if you are not already signed up it’s very easy to do so – either by email or through your facebook account.

I will continue to add to the board as sorting and cataloguing of the collections continues.  As ever please do contact us on merl@reading.ac.uk if you have any questions.

How many curators…?

As part of our ‘Shut, but not shutting up!’ social media campaign to stay in touch during MERL’s closure period, this week we’re launching ‘How many curators…?’, a new behind the scenes vlog channel on Youtube.

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator and budding film director/producer/actor/anchor, will be meeting members of staff and volunteers, talking to them about their jobs and getting a closer look at the fascinating and varied collections they work with. Each episode will present an informal and sometimes quirky insight into the different roles carried out by people working with the amazing variety of objects, archives and books in the University’s collections, at the Museum of English Rural Life, the Special Collections, the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Cole Museum and more…

The aim is to dispel the myth that the only people who work in museums are curators!  In fact, out of  50+ people at the University’s Museums and Collections, only 6 have ‘curator’ in their job title! So whether you’re thinking of a career in collections or are fascinated by the inner workings of museums, you’ll discover how many curators (and archivists, librarians, conservators, marketers, visitor service assistants, education officers, programme managers…) it takes to run a successful museums and collections service.  This will be a unique opportunity to follow MERL staff and volunteers throughout the process of transforming the museum, as well as getting to see what staff across the collections at the University get up to.

To see the first episode of ‘How many curators…?’ see below!

Project update: Shut, but not shutting up!

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer, explains that although the museum galleries are now closed for redevelopment, the reading room and gift shop are open, work behind the scenes continues, and a social media campaign is planned to keep the followers up to date with activities and project progress during the closure period.

Although the museum galleries are closed to the public, there will be plenty of activity at MERL and we’ll be using social media to make sure everyone knows we haven’t packed up, locked up and gone off to the Caribbean for a year! We’ll definitely be ‘Shut, but not shutting up!’



It has been fun working with colleagues to plan innovative and exciting ways of maintaining an interesting flow of information and encouraging dialogue with our followers during the closure period. We’ve tried out new platforms, encouraged more staff to get involved, and learnt how to make gifs!

So here’s a taste of what we’ll be sharing…

Collections and conservation staff will be occupied with project work, from removing, packaging and storing artefacts at the start of the project, to working with the designers on detailed plans for the new galleries and then overseeing the refitting stage. We’ll be sharing fascinating insights into this work via project and research posts on this blog and the Sense of Place blog, and plenty of pictures on Instagram!

instagram autumn

As the shop will be staying open throughout the Museum closure, our Visitor Services team will be keen to share news of special offers, the online store, new products and plans for the future via their new hashtag #MERLshopisopen on the MERL Twitter account.

Archives and Library staff will barely notice the closure! The reading room will still be open and the Special Collections Service will operate as usual. Our public programme will be focusing on the Special Collections, with Staircase Hall exhibitions, a seminar series, and even the Rural Reads book club will move to the Staircase Hall and expand its remit to include books inspired by the Special Collections. This week our archives and library staff are getting involved with Explore your Archive week, so follow the #explorearchives on the Special Collections twitter account and on Beckett, books and biscuits, the Special Collections blog.


In addition, Archives and Library staff will be working with the museum designers to integrate archive papers, rare books, film and photographs into the new displays, as well as planning ways of making the collections more accessible online. They’ll be sharing detailed plans as they emerge but in the meantime, as they delve into the collections, you’ll their most interesting discoveries on Pinterest.

MERL Pinterest screen


Perhaps the most novel addition to our portfolio is our new ‘behind the scenes’ vlog channel ‘How many Curators…?’ which we’ll be launching later this week! Focusing on the varied roles of museum and collections staff, the series is aimed at students, and anyone else who’s interested in finding out about what goes on behind the scenes, not just at MERL but at the University’s Ure Museum, Cole Museum and Special Collections. Rob Davies, our Volunteer Coordinator, will be the anchor for these films which will present an informal, light-hearted and occasionally quirky insight into museum roles and activities. For more information, read the blog post and follow us on tumblr.

So follow us and watch this space, as there’s even talk of MERL on Minecraft!

Volunteers’ Voice #16: Young people as volunteers

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator

Our lovely Vintage Night student volunteers

Our lovely Vintage Night student volunteers

As part of the Our Country Lives project we are launching a series of projects to encourage young people (aged 11-25) to volunteer and engage with MERL. The age range is vast, with a wide variety of skills, abilities and interests within this target audience. You may ask: why are we targeting this group in particular? Well, through extensive research we have identified that our only visitors within that age category are usually those who come to study, students who volunteer or visit as part of a school trip. We can certainly continue to provide this educational resource, but we want to broaden our horizons and become more of a destination, not just offering a studious environment but also a place to go for extracurricular activities and leisure.

To prepare ourselves for this I have been researching young people within the museum sector and have come across a rich range of resources, related experiences and friendly colleagues who want to share stories and tips. In October I attended a seminar at the National Portrait Gallery called ‘The Domino Effect’, which heralded the conclusion of a three year project where they have been working with NEETS on photography projects. I have also been talking to colleagues at the ‘Collaborate SE: the South East regional Network of Museums working with young people.’

A series of projects and strategies have been planned, but not too in-depth as we want these projects to be formed by the young people themselves. (We were all young once, but does that mean any of us really know what young people want anymore?) Our plan is to have two forums split by age category. Each one will be supported by a member of staff and will function democratically. Last year we piloted this idea with a student panel who organised our 1951 Vintage Night for Museums at Night, which was a very enjoyable experience and a great success. Members of the forums will have numerous projects they can participate in: from consultation regarding our new galleries to planning events for their peers to attend. For young people who don’t fancy the idea of joining a forum we’re also setting up a youth volunteering programme, which will work around school hours and provide a chance to volunteer across the organisation.

To launch these exciting new projects we’re holding an open afternoon on Takeover Day, Friday 21st November, 4-6pm, at the Museum of English Rural Life. This will be a great opportunity for anyone interested to come along and talk to volunteers and members of staff about the type of opportunities they could get involved in. We hope to see you there! For more information, email merlevents@reading.ac.uk