The Museum of English Rural Life on Social Media #1

With the museum closed for refurbishment, we’re relying heavily on social media to make sure we keep people up to date with what’s happening. We launched our ‘Shut, but not shutting up! campaign last year, and we’ve been busy sharing news and progress behind the scenes. In this post, Social Media & Collections intern, Lisa, reviews our accounts…


FB pageDid you know the Museum is on Facebook? If you’re like me and are constantly scrolling through your homepage to see what’s happening, then why not check out The Museum of English Rural Life’s page. You’ll find project updates and information about upcoming events, as well as news stories about countryside and farming issues, and links to the museum’s other social media accounts, so it’s a good place to start.


MERL Pinterest screenFor people who are interested in photography and images, MERL is on Pinterest. Here we share photos of everything from pictures of our collections, to events that have been happening, as well as archive images. It’s a great way for us to be creative, find common themes in our collections and have some fun taking photos. However, if you are more of an Instagram person, MERL actually shares an Instagram account with the other University of Reading Museums and Collections. From edgy photos of objects, to capturing MERL’s beautiful red-brick Victorian building in the summer rays, follow us on Instagram at unirdg_collections to have a little browse.

MERL also has a Flickr account which we haven’t used so much recently, but it has some amazing photos of objects in our collections, as well as events that the museum has put on in the past.


Tumblr pageBefore coming to MERL, I had never had much to do with Tumblr. However, seeing how good MERL’s Tumblr is has definitely changed my opinion of it.  Again, MERL shares the account with the other University of Reading Museums and Collections, so I would definitely recommend having a look. Short articles filled with interesting facts, combined with quirky photos means that it’s an easy way to gain background information about the variety of collections at the University.


hobby horse avatar flipPerhaps you are interested in working in a museum or archive? Want to gain an insight into the different roles people carry out here at MERL? Then our YouTube Channel, How many curators…? is the perfect place for you to visit. It’s very informal and quite fun! Our Volunteer Coordinator Rob interviews staff and volunteers about their roles and what their job involves to help people who are interested in this type of career gain a picture of what it’s actually like. Moreover, you can find out about some of our unusual collections!

I hope this has helped you gain a better insight into all the different types of social media MERL has and encouraged you to visit a site.  We’d love to know what you think!


In her next post Lisa will focus on the Museum (and staff) on Twitter!


Countryside forum update

Over the last few months, Museum staff have been carrying out consultation with many individuals to help shape the redevelopment. Our Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, updates us on one aspect of  consultation: the Countryside Forum.

As part of the Our Country Lives Activity Plan, the project team set up a Countryside Forum earlier this year, made up of individuals and groups who have a direct relationship with the countryside. The purpose of this Forum is for the individuals to feed back on the new gallery plans, test interactive ideas and to explore issues that have an impact upon their lives. We have taken two approaches with this forum, either meeting in a group at the Museum or visiting individuals for an in-depth one-to-one discussion – both involving plenty of tea and cake!

Ollie, Jethro and Ron

Even our famous family trail rat, Jethro has been joining in, much to Assistant Curator Ollie’s embarrassment!

During our discussions we’ve been revealing future plans for the new galleries and inviting initial feedback. This has been an essential part of the redesign, helping to ensure that our new displays are interesting and relevant to a range of target audiences. It has allowed us to have discussions with individuals about the topics with which they feel particularly passionate, which in turn has led us to consider the type of subjects we are potentially exploring in the redeveloped museum. For example, at the last meeting we were discussing with one local famer the challenges he experienced as a dairy farmer to which he responded: “we gave up the unequal struggle in 2006.”

The challenge of milk pricing (and its impact on farmers) is something which is often in the news headlines and it is issues such as these which we are hoping to address is the Museum through our collections. Although our collections relate to the past, we will be looking at how they relate to contemporary issues that affect people who live and work in the countryside. We will also be tackling contemporary issues through interactives (or ‘hands on’ experiences) and, with our Forums, we’ve been testing some ideas about the different forms that these may take. This has been essential to the development process in our thinking and will have a valuable impact upon the final designs.

Anne and Frank beer and milk

An exciting and fascinating aspect of this Forum is that it has given us the opportunity to visit working farms. The journeys alone have been quite an adventure and the discussions have been incredibly fruitful. We visited Mr Venters in Wiltshire where we had some very lively discussions about fox hunting, the development of farm machinery and class in the countryside, and to top the visit off we met some newborn lambs.

Venters lamb

Through our discussions it became increasingly clear to me how relevant the Museum has the potential to be to people who live and work in the countryside. For example, we met one retired farmer who runs straw dolly workshops in care homes. He himself learnt the practice from farm labourers when he was a young boy.  As you may or may not know, MERL has an extensive straw dolly collection.

Our forums are not just about us showing people the museum plans and discussing how we’ll be displaying our collections, they’re much more than that. Through these forums we are creating new networks and starting conversations with people from across the countryside community, which will enable us to create an oral history archive, sustain open conversations and develop long term relationships.

If you would like to contribute in any way to our Countryside Forum, please leave a comment and we’ll get in touch!


Rob Davies

Volunteer Coordinator

Focus on collections: Bikes & Cycling

Our Social Media and Collections intern, Lisa, has been researching bike-related materials in our collection to coincide with Bike Week…

This week it’s Bike Week which aims to promote cycling, encouraging people to make it part of their everyday lives. Not only it is it great fun and a healthier way to travel to work, it’s also an excellent way to explore the countryside. A large number of events are happening across the country this week to promote cycling, in particular cycling to work as let’s face it, cycling in the sunny rays alongside a colleague to work seems far more appealing than being in a stuffy car stuck in traffic.

As a result, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the collections here at MERL to see what interesting objects relating to bikes the museum has to offer. Scrolling through the online catalogue, it was clear that MERL holds a huge collection relating to bikes, from bicycle lamps to cycling maps, as well as a boneshaker bicycle; I was certainly not disappointed!


MERL 2010/159


One interesting item that caught my eye was the Bacon’s Country Map of Kent which was number two in the series and sold for seven pence. Having been produced between 1906 and 1910 by G. W. Bacon & Co, this map highlights that people were beginning to view the countryside in a different light at this time. There was an increasing interest to explore the countryside and see what it had to offer, from its rolling hills to flowering meadows. The idea of escaping the busy city and enjoying the fresh country air with its beautiful views was popular, therefore maps such as this one would have come in handy to find picturesque cycle roots through the countryside.


MERL 75/30

With MERL being home to one of the biggest basket collections in the country, from delivery baskets to fruit baskets, I was on the lookout to find a bicycle basket. Like so many people today, I can’t cycle anywhere without my trusty bicycle basket. This basket that I came across was actually made in Reading by George Frost of Spencers Wood in 1975. Made from willow that came from Taunton in Somerset, along with its leather straps and buckles that allows it to attach to the bicycle, it looks like the perfect accessory to any bicycle and a great way of carrying a picnic.

Finally, my favourite object that I came across was the corn dolly penny farthing bicycle leaning beside a lamp post. Originally made by Alec Coker for a competition at the Lambeth Corn Dolly Gathering in Cambridgeshire, it is clear that a lot of work went into making it. Corn dollies were once used for ritual purposes, but from the 1950’s great efforts were made to preserve the craft after the ritual associations with corn dolly’s faded away.



MERL 86/145/1-2

From looking into the collections here at MERL, the museum has some very interesting ojects relating to the topic of bikes which Bike Week has highlighted. Cycling is a great way to explore the countryside and keep fit, therefore I will certainly be taking full adavantage of my bike this summer!


Discovering the Landscape #16: Jellicoe’s JFK memorial at Runnymede

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

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, showing Geoffrey Jellicoe on the right viewing his JFK memorial gardens, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, showing Geoffrey Jellicoe on the right viewing the gardens, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

As the world marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, Runnymede in Surrey (a water meadow alongside the Thames and the site at which King John sealed the charter as a peace treaty with rebellious barons) has understandably received a lot of media attention.

Due to Runnymede’s ideological association with democracy and freedom under the law as the site of the sealing of Magna Carta – Runnymede also became the site of several high profile memorials.  This gives us the opportunity to explore our collections relating to Geoffrey Jellicoe’s J. F. Kennedy memorial gardens at Runnymede.

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, showing the granite setts being laid, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, showing the granite setts being laid, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

In 1963 Geoffrey Jellicoe was commission by the Crown to design the British memorial garden to J. F. Kennedy, which was constructed at Runnymede and was dedicated by the Queen in 1965.  Through the design of the gardens, Jellicoe explored ideas relating to how art and landscapes can be subconsciously and symbolically connected through modern art.

The visitor enters Jellicoe’s memorial gardens for JFK through a gateway, which leads to a pathway and set of steps constructed using some 60,000 individual granite setts.  The uneven nature of the path symbolises the ‘pilgrimage’ of those who visit to commemorate the life of JFK.

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, showing the granite path leading to the memorial stone, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, showing the granite path leading to the memorial stone, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

Upon reaching the top of the flight of steps in the garden, the visitor is presented with a Portland stone memorial tablet, designed by English sculptor Alan Collins, which is inscribed with text from JFK’s inaugural address:

“Let every Nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, featuring the memorial stone, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

Images of JFK memorial at Runnymede, featuring the memorial stone, from Susan Jellicoe photographic collection, P JEL PH2 L 8

Our Geoffrey Jellicoe collection (handlist here) features images of the memorial at Runnymede, as does our Susan Jellicoe photographic collection (handlist here), from which the images used in this blog post are taken.

For more information, see Harvey, Geoffrey Jellicoe (Landscape Design Trust: 1998) and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  If you would like to visit us to view our collections in our reading room, or for any other queries, please contact us on:

I Love Museums

If you’ve been on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram today, you may have noticed the #ILoveMuseums hashtag trending all over your timelines. Musuem staff, volunteers and visitors across the country, including our own University Museums and Collections have been tweeting their personal reasons for loving museums, but the press release below explains what’s behind the hashtag…


Assistant Volunteer Coordinator, Rhiannon and why she loves museums

Today is the launch of I Love Museums, a new campaign led by the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) to demonstrate the depth of support for UK museums by empowering the public to share why museums are important to them.

Museums and galleries are more popular than ever – last year there were 66.8 million visits to the national and major regional museums in NMDC’s membership alone, and over half of adults and two thirds of children visited a museum. Museums play a vital role in the lives of individuals, families and communities across the UK, and make a key contribution to our society and economy. But our museums are facing challenging times, with local and national governments making tough decisions about funding. I Love Museums will show funders and policymakers how much museums matter by celebrating the UK public’s support for our wonderful cultural institutions.

I Love Museums provides museums with the tools and resources to turn their audiences into active advocates, as well as adding their support to the nationwide campaign for national and local government support and funding for museums. The campaign is led by the NMDC with support from Arts Council England, the Art Fund, Association of Independent Museums, Culture24, the Museums Association and the University Museums Group.

Diane Lees, Chair of the NMDC and Director-General of Imperial War Museums, said: “We know that museums are incredibly popular, as ever-increasing visitor numbers attest, and the public are our most powerful advocates. I Love Museums will enable us to measure and demonstrate the depth of that public support and show politicians and policymakers how much the UK public values our world-class museums.”

More information about the campaign can be found on the website:

Volunteers’ Voice: Louise

As today is Toddler Time day, our Volunteers’ Week post is by Louise Bell who helps out at this regular event for our youngest visitors… 

Four years ago, I moved to Reading. I didn’t know much about the place and didn’t have any friends in the area. I had previously lived and worked in a small, rural, north Bedfordshire village where I knew just about everyone, even just to say hello.

So, what does one do to meet people? Look for another job? Well I didn’t really want to start that right away, I wanted to get settled in our new house and support my husband in his new role.  Then, maybe look at working again in the future.

Our children were away at university, so no meeting mums in the playground, as I have done in the past (we have moved a lot over the years!).

I had never had the opportunity of going to university myself, so the institution was somewhat alien to me.  What was going on in all of those buildings, and just who were the people working, studying and visiting the campus on a daily basis?

Well the only way to find out was to join them.

So very early on, I discovered the University had a Museum of English Rural Life. What’s more, it actively involved members of the public in a large volunteer programme.  After checking out all the different opportunities that were on offer, there was one that suited me down to the ground – Toddler Time.

I had worked with young children for the last decade or more in our village school. I was missing those little people who grow and become the teenagers, students and adults of the future.  What a privilege it is to play a small part in their journey.


Louise helping some Toddler Time attendees create an extra-large picture!

Toddler Time meets once a week in the Museum (although just monthly at the moment, while the redevelopment works are going on) with the aim of introducing youngsters to life in rural England, past and present.  We sing some farm or animal songs and then move to a purpose-built studio for a craft-related activity, with something that the children can take home with them.  It can be tough getting something suitable for such young children each week but the adults enjoy helping.

Volunteering has given me a great insight to the many facets of the University and, in particular, the Museum of English Rural Life.  I have learned much and seen the very real passion that the staff have for their work. I have also enjoyed feeling part of the Museum community as a newcomer to the area.  Making friends with staff and other volunteers too has been a real privilege.

So, come along and get involved!



The Cheese Curry Experiment

It is difficult to know quite how to categorise this post by Project Officer, Felicity McWilliams, but it’s all in the name of research for one of our new galleries…promise!

Given that it is, apparently, British Cheese Week, today seems an appropriate time to share with you the results of a little experiment I carried out a few weeks back. Anybody who came along to our cheese-themed Museums at Night event last month will have seen copies of recipes from a 1970s cookery book produced by the Cheese Information Service. The book is called Make a Meal of Cheese, and I came across it whilst researching for an area of the new museum galleries which will focus on farmhouse cheesemaking. Organisations like the Cheese Information Service and the Milk Marketing Board used such publications (and the promotion of concepts such as the ‘ploughman’s lunch’ in pubs) to encourage consumers to eat more British cheese. It’s fascinating – the authors really try to convince you that any recipe can be improved by the addition of cheddar cheese.


Some of the recipes actually sound okay – leeks wrapped in bacon covered in cheese sauce, for example – but many more are distinctly suspicious. I decided to test one, and was immediately drawn to the implausible cheddar cheese curry. It sounded (and looked) terrible, but I was willing to give it a chance.

Here are the assembled ingredients. It was quite enjoyable measuring everything in advance into little bowls – I could pretend I was a TV chef. As you can see, other than a chopped onion there is a distinct lack of vegetables in this curry. As the recipe points out though, you can make this almost entirely with store cupboard ingredients, so it is convenient.


Step one: fry onions in butter. So far so good – fried onions smell delicious and I was starting to think that this might just be okay.

Step two: add flour and curry powder. Looks a bit weird, and I came to the realisation that I was effectively making a roux.


Step three: add vegetable stock. It’s like their recipe researcher thought to themselves, ‘Curry sauce? Well, I know how to make a sauce – adding curry powder will make it a curry sauce, right?’

Step four: add seasoning (like that’s going to save this dish), sultanas and chutney. I suppose the sultanas added interest but the chutney gave a vaguely unpleasant sliminess to the sauce.


Step five: add cheddar cheese. It felt wrong, even as I was doing it. I stirred it round a bit to coat it all in sauce and tried to spot when it looked like it might be starting to melt.


Step six: serve, 1970s style, in a ring of rice.


You may be impressed, or horrified, to know that I did eat the curry – and I don’t mean just a small taste. I actually served this to my parents for Sunday lunch. Mom, who had assisted in the preparation, was as sceptical as me but my Dad tried hard to be enthusiastic, saying ‘I’m sure that, since you made it, it will be delicious’. He did sound like he was trying to convince himself.

The verdict? I’d really hoped that this dish would surprise me, that somehow, despite looking revolting and being formed of a strange amalgamation of ingredients and cooking techniques, it would actually taste pleasant. Alas, it was revolting. The sauce was slimy, without any real flavour as the curry powder just seemed to sit on the surface. And cheddar cheese does not taste good in curry. It’s consistency and sharp tang (we used mature) clashed horribly with the sauce. Perhaps we should have used a mild cheese, but the sauce was tasteless enough as it was.

The rice was alright though.

Once the taste of this curry recedes far enough into my memory for me to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad really, I plan to attempt another recipe from Make a Meal of Cheese. Do comment and let me know if you have any interesting cheese-based recipes – good or bad, and the weirder the better!

Volunteers’ Voice: Shreeya & Rasmi

Today’s Volunteers’ Week post is by Shreeya & Rasmi, students from a local secondary school, who volunteered to help us brainstorm ideas for the new museum. They ranked different types of interactives, compiled a possible teenagers’ book club reading list and a list of national days related to the museum that we could highlight on social media…

We contributed to different elements regarding the new renovations occurring in the museum. It allowed us to hone our creativity and gave us the valuable opportunity to explore our ideas, for which we are very grateful. This process involved quite a lot of researching and brainstorming, alongside the ability to come to conclusions justified by the evidence in front of us. For example, with the brainstorming for ideas regarding the interactive activities for the new museum where we attempted to enlist as many new means of attracting both demographics; whilst still evaluating whether our ideas will be successful or not.

We started our volunteering on January the 13th. We contributed one hour, every Wednesday for 16 weeks.

Although we enjoyed the whole volunteering experience, the activity we particularly enjoyed was  researching calendar dates relating to rural life as we got to acknowledge different dates such as “Kiss A Farmer Day”  we were once not aware of!

This volunteering experience gave us a platform to communicate our ideas which improved our interpersonal skills alongside providing us with an opportunity to further our potential. It also adds to our CV! It allowed us to broaden our horizons which hopefully will help us in our future.

Volunteer’s Voice: Sophie

This week is Volunteers’ Week and we are celebrating the wonderful work done by our volunteers and thanking them for all the hours and effort they put into making the museum the best it can possibly be.

To showcase our brilliant volunteers every day this week we will be posting blogs written by the volunteers themselves about what they do at the museum, why they volunteer and why they love it. Every day they will give you an insight into the integral work that volunteers carry out across the Univerity’s Museums and Collections in their own words; today’s volunteer is Sophie, who volunteers with our library team

Sophie and Wizard of OzSince November, I have been working with Library Assistant Helen on various different collections and learning a lot through her willingness to answer questions and also her confidence to let me have a go on my own. I have been learning about lots of the different stages of book processing and it’s great to be able to see the books through from delivery to shelf.

There is a wide range of collections here and, with my love of theology and literature, I have found much that is very interesting. For the last few weeks I have been downloading and updating records for the Wizard of Oz collection which we are trying to get ready quickly as it’s already in use! I didn’t know that there were so many versions of the Wizard of Oz, some cheaply made with slightly creepy illustrations and others with beautifully drawn imaginative illustration, some pop-up, some film-oriented, and aimed at all different ages.

The wonderful thing about volunteering in Special Collections is the sheer diversity in the subjects it is possible to work on. Far from the famous and popular Wizard of Oz, I have also spent some time with the obscure life’s work of Anders Retzius whose beautiful, carefully written and drawn leather-bound book would interest those with a very specific focus on ‘myxine glutinosa’, or ‘hagfish’.

One of the Librarians, Liz, has also been giving short lessons on various elements of librarianship, the most recent being on the history of paper which was fascinating and informative, especially for those of us who were unaware of the mysteries of, for example, watermarks. For me, preparing to begin a Graduate Traineeship in Librarianship, working in Reading University’s Special Collections has given me a good introduction to the many facets of a complex career.

Volunteers’ Voice: Lisa

Today’s Volunteers’ Week post is by Lisa, who’s been volunteering at MERL since 2012…

I joined MERL as a Volunteer in 2012 in order to gain some experience in the museum sector. At the time I was studying for my BA and it was MERL that influenced me to study my MFA Fine Art at the University of Reading and I enrolled the following year.

The museum has provided many opportunities to assist at one-off events including the annual Village Fete and the Whiteknights Studio Trail. I have also been involved in longer-term projects, including Toddler Time and more recently the Astor Project, which involves cataloguing the records held in the ‘Papers of Nancy Astor‘ archive held in the University’s Special Collections. I spend 2-3 hours each week transferring notes from the index books to an Excel spreadsheet so that the archive, which dates from around the 1930s, will be stored in a digital format for improved access and searching. I’ve enjoyed taking part in this project as it has shown me how the Special Collections Library operates and how valuable documents are filed and preserved properly in the archive store.


I am interested in writing so my involvement in the archive has had a positive influence on the art practice that I have developed during my time as an MFA student at the University’s Art Department. All the Volunteers and Staff at MERL have been welcoming and supportive and it’s been great meeting people with similar interests as I continue to work towards an academic career within art.

A few months after starting as a volunteer I was offered the opportunity to work on the front desk at the weekend as a Relief Assistant. It’s been fantastic to work directly in the museum with its visitors and to see how much they value the museum as a place to return to regularly. I continue to volunteer at MERL because it is such a great resource and provides many opportunities, but also because it is a place that means something to its whole community. And the cakes aren’t bad either.