Explore Your Archive: Introducing Reading Readers

Our Reading Room Supervisor, Adam Lines, introduces a new feature for the MERL and Special Collections blogs, finding out how readers explore archives.

On a daily basis, members of the public, students and academics from around the world use our extensive and varied collections. In the reading room at one time, researchers can be consulting manuscripts from the Samuel Beckett archive, looking at engineering drawings as part of an engine restoration project, or exploring our photographic collections as part of a local history study. They play such a key role in our understanding of the things under our care. They bring specialist subject knowledge and shed light on aspects of archives that enriches our understanding of them.

The view of the Reading Room from the supervisor's desk.

The view of the Reading Room from the supervisor’s desk.

With this in mind, I decided it was time we shared some of the fascinating research carried out in our reading room. My colleagues and I hear about the research taking place on a daily basis, but a lot of it is too interesting not to share.

As part of ‘Explore Your Archive’ week, we will be sharing some examples. This will be the start of a regular feature on the Museum of English Rural Life and University of Reading Special Collections blogs, and through the eyes of our researchers we hope to share the potential for discovery in our collections.

Look out for more Reading Readers posts this week, and in the future.

To find out more about accessing the archives, click here.


Explore Your Archive: People Stories – Emily Eavis

Audience Development Manager, Phillippa Heath, introduces a project in which local school students discovered how archives can be used to research fascinating lives. 

As part of the Museum of English Rural Life’s redevelopment, we are keen to reveal the hidden stories behind our collections. Over the Summer we were fortunate to welcome sixth form History students from The Abbey School to MERL on a two week placement. Working in groups, the students were set the challenge to explore the stories behind five fascinating women with connections to our collection. Using museum archives and objects, students researched into their lives and from this research wrote blogs which we are delighted to publish throughout this week. Our first blog written by the students presents the story of Emily Eavis.

Abbey reading room

Glastonbury, do you want to know what’s behind it? Or should I say who?

Emily Eavis is the daughter of the founder of the famous Glastonbury festival. She has lived on the working farm which has been in her family for six generations and even to this day has 500 friesian cows, so please don’t drop your litter! Her early life consisted of living on her farm and attending Wells Cathedral school – I bet she did well there!  Later on she went to Goldsmiths college, then worked with Oxfam and Greenpeace doing various charitable work before training to become a teacher.

When she was younger, she had a love- hate relationship with the festival. Emily herself said “I couldn’t understand why so many people were in our garden. It was like an invasion” and in 1990, when she was 10 “a row of people were hurrying towards the window with telegraph poles that were on fire. It was horrific.” However, now she is older she loves working creatively with the festival especially “the frilly bits […] It’s exciting. It’s the best bit.” Evidence of this is also present in Park Stage which she has curated since 2008 which has seen performances from artists such as Adele, Biffy Clyro and The xx.

She dropped out of her teaching training course to care for her sick mother (who she believed was the backbone of the festival), who died in 1999. To commemorate her death she threw herself into the festival with her father which began two months later, ensuring that she maintained the legacy her mother created. Since then she has not left and is more involved than ever and to this day she is the co-organiser of Glastonbury. Her charitable roots still shine through; in 2007 she donated 2million to various charities including Oxfam, Greenpeace and Wateraid along with local hospitals and schools and this to her “makes [the festival] worthwhile”.

Glastonbury has changed significantly since Emily Eavis’ early years. The festival attracts 150,000 people nowadays but in her time there was only 100’s of people. Furthermore, the acts have changed, security has increased and it is as eco-friendly as ever. There is still some hostility towards Emily; who was sent death threats following the booking of Kanye West.

The festival is very much a family affair. Emily Eavis grew up in a farmhouse and now lives there with her husband and two sons, George and Noah. FUN FACT: George was born just weeks before the festival in 2010. She wants her children to have the same upbringing she had, saying “maybe one day it will be George living with his family in the farmhouse.”

Explore Your Archive: Let there be drawers…

Deputy University Archivist, Caroline Gould, has spent a huge amount of time exploring the MERL archives and photographic collections to select the items which will help tell the stories in our new museum galleries. Faced with such a wealth of fascinating archive material, this hasn’t always been the easiest of exercises! 

For the last two years we have all been researching which objects, archives, library material should appear in the new galleries as part of the Our Country Lives project.  It has been a key aim of this project to include in the displays more of the archives which are held by the museum.

The Museum of English Rural Life is a major national repository for archives of agriculture and rural life. The strengths of the collection include: records of major agricultural manufacturing firms; historic archives of agricultural organisations and cooperatives; large collections of personal records and journals of farm workers; company accounts of farms across England; and films relating to the countryside and agriculture.

One of the characteristics which makes MERL unique is the wealth of the archives which enrich the museum’s collection. The new museum galleries will feature many special archives items, giving depth to the new displays. During the museum’s closure period, the reading room has remained open and researchers have continued to access the huge resources, so this seems like a good time to shout about this fascinating aspect of our collections.

We started thinking about different stories and collections that we hoped would feature in the interpretation in November 2013. The stories and key messages have not remained fixed over the two years but have changed and developed which means the selection of archives has also changed to reflect the new messages. We now feel we are close to the final selection of images, archives and films that will appear in the galleries next year.

The archives and photographs will help interpret the objects, provide context and explain how the objects were used graphically. The images vary in size from A4 to a full wall. Gallery 2, A year on the Farm features an Eric Guy photograph entitled “Their midday ration on a Winters day. ”

P DX289 PH3_4618

One section of Gallery 3 which focuses on ‘Grow your Own’ features this Sutton Seeds poster from around 1890 advertising vegetables.

Poster advertising vegetables c1890 Sutton Seeds Collection

Poster advertising vegetables c1890 Sutton Seeds Collection

At times, as a team it has been difficult as some items that have selected and we are really keen for a wider audience to see have not been selected for the final display. Sometimes there is not enough space in the gallery to display the items or other items fit with the wider interpretation of the gallery so the archives have not been selected.

However, in the galleries there are 10 cases in the galleries that have drawers! The intention is to display original archives in the drawers. The selection will change two or three times a year so we can display a range of items and visitors will see new collections the next time they visit. There has been quite a lot of discussion within the curatorial team working on Our Country Lives about whether visitors will open the drawers. I remain positive I think visitors will enjoy discovering the archives. Let there be drawers!


Explore Your Archive: 16 to 22 November

explore-your-archive-primary-message-smallNext week is the launch of this year’s Explore Your Archive campaign, which is coordinated by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland). The Explore Your Archive campaign is encouraging people to discover the stories, the facts, the places and the people that are at the heart of our communities. Archives across the UK and Ireland are taking part to raise awareness of the value of archives to society and of the rich variety of content that is held, preserved and made available to users.

Throughout next week we’ll be joining in the campaign to bring to life the archives of the Museum of English Rural Life and the University of Reading’s Special Collections, revealing the variety of the collections, highlighting our favourite items, and showing what the collections mean to the people who work with and study them.

At 11am on Monday , we’re hosting a very special event ‘History on TV’ with Reading historians Professor Kate Williams and Dr Jacqui Turner who will chat about the effect of the media on public history. Is history now just another commodity? Can archives really be described as entertainment? How accurate is the new Suffragette film? And what’s the inside track on the Great British Bake Off? You can book to attend by emailing merlevents@reading.ac.uk or call 0118 378 8660, or if you can’t make it, tune in to our very first live broadcast via Periscope. (You can find our Periscope account here: @UniRdg_SpecColl. We’ll also be tweeting links to the live feed on the day from the @MERLreading and @UniRdg_SpecColl Twitter accounts)

There’ll be features on the MERL and Special Collections blog. Caroline Gould, Deputy University Archivist, will be looking at how archives will be an integral part of MERL’s new displays. We’ll also be featuring research carried out by local sixth form students for the ‘People Stories’ which will be a part of the new MERL galleries. We’ll be launching a new regular feature, Reading Readers, highlighting the research being carried out by academics, students and volunteers in our reading room, and exploring the fascinating work of our archive staff through a series of interviews.

Over the week on Tumblr we’ll be focussing on some favourite items, selected by staff and volunteers, and featuring some unusual and surprising items!

On Twitter, you can follow the daily hashtags including #explorearchives #archiveselfies #yearinarchives #archivesrock and #archiveanimals

We hope you’ll join us and share what you love about archives!


Rural Reads Review

Common_groundThis October we read Common Ground by Rob Cowen; it was different from our usual rural reads and offered a fresh perspective. Common Ground  is a fusion of biopic and nature writing, expertly woven together to take the reader through a piece of land that we all have experience and knowledge of; those edge lands just outside your village, town or city.

With a move to a new town in Yorkshire, his employment in jeopardy and a baby on the way, Cowen finds solace in the outskirts of the town. This is a half-forgotten place where nature breathes, survives and thrives.  Cowen takes the reader to this outer remit and casts a light. Each chapter is themed around an inhabitant of this environment, which we as a group really enjoyed and thought worked well.

Whether the chapter was discussing the hare, kestrel or owl, they were interwoven with biographical elements or (what we assumed) fictional stories that resonate with the land. I personally enjoyed the chapter about the owl, interweaving the owl’s masterful hearing with the first ultra sound of his unborn baby.

Cowen’s writing is often beautiful, his descriptions of kestrels had me moving with them. Even if you aren’t very knowledgeable about owls, hares or kestrels, Cowen’s evocative writing richly brings them alive and provides you with snippets of information.

As a group we thoroughly enjoyed Common Ground.  Many of the readers found it a perfect bedtime read. It has spurred us on to read similar books in the future, but to also think about our own relationship with our ‘common ground’.

Reading Common Ground has encouraged me to walk out of Reading and into the ‘no man’s land’ that is tucked between the M4 and the town. I’ve walked through meadows I had no idea existed, I’ve come across wildlife that I wouldn’t expect to see. I also realised how unused and at times unkempt the perimeter is; but for the wildlife this is a blessing, allowing wildflowers and fungi to thrive, alongside insects, mammals and fish.

For our next meeting on Thursday 26th November we’re reading The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson.

Volunteers’ Voice: day trippers

One of the ways we recognise the efforts of our volunteers each year is to organise a special day out. A couple of weeks ago the team went on a trip to Wales (unsurprisingly, since our Welsh colleagues, Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator and Rhiannon Watkinson, will never miss an opportunity to head down the M4!)

This year we took our volunteers to St Fagans National History Museum, just outside Cardiff, in order to explore hundreds of years of Welsh history. Another reason for choosing to visit St Fagans is that, like us, they are going through a major HLF redevelopment and we thought it would be a great chance to see another museum that is on the same journey as MERL.

Volunteer group shot

We headed off nice and early and there was an audible cheer from the almost exclusively Welsh staff members as we crossed over the Severn Bridge! After a slight hiccup with a large coach and a small lane we arrived at St Fagans to be met by Gareth the Senior Curator for Rural Economy. We were extremely lucky to be given a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the museum’s stores by Gareth; taking in amazing furniture such as Eisteddfod chairs, Welsh dressers, and some very impressive harps. Unsurprisingly, the volunteers were very excited about the collection of tools and agricultural equipment in the store; flails, shepherd’s crooks and even a candle making stick all went down a treat with our group and we enjoyed being able to compare St Fagans impressive hoard of tools to our own at MERL.

Next for the group came a well-deserved lunch and bit of free time where some of us explored the wonderful Rhyd-y-Car Ironworkers’ Houses which show what home life was like in Merthyr Tydfil from 1805 to 1985. Seeing the gradual change in the houses was absolutely fascinating; moving from the dark interiors of the early homes to the bright pastel décor of one of the 20th Century properties. We were also very taken with an authentic outside loo!

St Fagans Scenery 5

After lunch one of Gareth’s colleagues, Daffyd, showed us an aspect of the redevelopment which was hugely exciting: Llys Rhosyr, one of the courts of the Princes of Gwynedd. This court is currently in the process of construction but from the site you could get a real sense of the large scale of the project. Daffyd told us of the plans they have for the new structure as a place where school children can stay overnight and our volunteers have already decided a trip to stay in the court of a Welsh Prince is a must for a future volunteer trip!

Finally we went to see St Teilo’s Church which was originally erected in stages from around 1100 to 1520 and moved stone by stone to St Fagans over a 20 year period. There were gasps as we entered the church and saw the beautiful paintings that adorn every wall of the building. It was also particularly special as earlier in the day during our visit to the store we saw some of the original wall art which had been removed from the church and is now being conserved. It was a real spectacle and didn’t fail to impress a single one of our group.

St Teilo's Church

We all had a fantastic day and can’t recommend St Fagans highly enough. It is so important for all of us at MERL to show how much we appreciate our volunteers and as museums are a shared passion for both volunteers and staff what better way than a trip to one to say thank you.