Food takes first prize at the Berkshire Show

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, gives a recap of a busy weekend for The MERL at the Royal County of Berkshire Show. Photography by Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

I don’t think there’s anything quite like the Royal Berkshire Show. It’s a weird and wonderful melting pot of British culture. In amongst dancing sheep, pygmy goat competitions, Beatles-themed flower arrangements and wellies galore, The MERL was excited to take part in the University of Reading’s ‘Food Chain and Health’ stand.

Images of prize winning cattle and stunt motorcycles at the Royal Berkshire Show 2016. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

So much to see at the Berkshire Show.

Stunt Motorcycles

A large group of museum staff and volunteers worked across the weekend, having valuable conversations with show-goers about food and nutrition and raising awareness of The MERL and its upcoming reopening. We’re proud to have played an important role at the University’s stand, which was awarded ‘Best Trade Exhibit’ and ‘Best Large Trade Stand’.

University of Reading: Image of trophy and award given to University or Reading Stand at the 2016 Berkshire Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

University of Reading: Berkshire Show Champions! © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

From soil detective work, to cheese making and taste perception experiments, the university was keen to get people talking and thinking about the food chain and health by encouraging them to get involved with a variety of fun activities. To complement the university’s dairy nutrition research, The MERL had a great time helping children to design and make their own milk cartons. We also enjoyed running activities exploring themes from The Crunch – getting people talking about the importance of fibre in our diets, and the future of food. From this, we learned that most people aren’t great at working out which foods are a good source of dietary fibre, but they are very open to snacking on insects and to talking about how we might feed a growing population. One of the most rewarding aspects of the weekend was the high quality of conversations that were had about food.

An image of our edible insects area at the Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

Having a chat about edible insects and the future of food. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Greer Pester, a visual artist living between Mexico and Glasgow, developed a wonderful piece of food art throughout the weekend which proved to be one of the most engaging aspects of the stand. The work served to draw attention to the future of food and examined the uses, properties and history of amaranth.

Greer has been working with First Food Residency – an artist-led organisation focused on opening up debate about food through creative engagement with a variety of audiences. First Food Residency is currently actively involved in various projects at the university, and is even growing and using a beautiful crop of amaranth in one of The MERL’s experimental garden beds.

Image of child handling amaranth (A.K.A. 'love lies bleeding') at the Show. Copyright Anna Bruce for First Food Residency.

Getting up close and personal with amaranth (A.K.A. ‘love lies bleeding’). © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

It was fascinating to hear about how amaranth – also known as ‘love lies bleeding’ – was once a staple in the Aztec diet, but was banned by the Spanish conquistadors for its use in rituals, where sculptures were made from popped amaranth seeds, human sacrificial blood and honey. The subsequent decline in popularity of amaranth and its recent resurgence as a nutrition-packed ‘superfood’ demonstrates how our eating habits change over time and will continue to evolve in the future.

Drawing inspiration from amaranth’s rich history, Greer sculpted an Aztec-style pyramid from popped amaranth seeds, which worked as a sort of altar to food. Visitors were invited to make their own contributions in the form of paper offerings which were pinned to the pyramid. In this way, people of all ages and backgrounds were able to share their thoughts, wishes and pledges centred on food, and to share their favourite foods worthy of an altar.

Image of Greer Pester working on the amaranth pyramid sculpture at the start of the day. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Greer at work. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Image of a child pinning a paper offering to the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for The First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for The First Food Residency.

Image of a close up view of the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

Image of Greer and visitors working on the amaranth sculpture. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

© Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

It was fitting that the work appeared towards the exit of the University’s marquee, leaving people in the right frame of mind to reflect on the sacred qualities of food and to consider how they might cultivate a more positive relationship with food, health and nature.

Image of the completed amaranth sculpture entitled: 'When your love lies bleeding squish it into joy'. Copyright Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency.

The finished piece, entitled: ‘When your love lies bleeding squish it into joy’. © Anna Bruce Photography for the First Food Residency

If you missed The MERL at the Berkshire Show, don’t forget to catch us at our Grand Opening Festival on 22 October.

Fun and festivities at the Big Band Lunch

Science Engagement Officer, Robyn Hopcroft, reveals what we got up to at the Big Band Lunch on Sunday.

MERL Big Band Lunch Stand

Getting started at the MERL stand

Last Sunday we enjoyed glorious weather and fabulous big band music at the University of Reading’s annual Big Band Lunch. This was a chance to bring the University and local communities together over lunch, and celebrate the University’s 90th Anniversary year. A small team of staff and dedicated volunteers were in attendance and we had great fun running traditional fete games such as ‘splat the rat’ and ‘hook a duck’.

Seed Press in action

Our seed press in action. Apparently our sunflower oil was far tastier than the store-bought variety.

But the theme of the day was food and music, and we were especially interested in chatting to people about food. Where does it come from? What’s it made of? Why do we eat what we eat? By getting hands-on with activities devised for The Crunch programme, such as oat rolling and sunflower seed pressing, we were able to have some great conversations about the history and nutritious properties of oats and edible oils.

Ministry of Food 1946 leaflet with barley and oat recipes

Ministry of Food recipe leaflet (1946). Visitors were able to roll their own oats and take away some contemporary and vintage recipes for inspiration.

We even received some help from human nutrition staff and students and it was a great opportunity to find out more about some of the cutting edge research being conducted at the University. I was pleased to be able to meet and chat to scientists studying some of the potential health benefits of phenolic acids in oats. Phenolic acids are found in many plant-based foods and play a role in heart health.

Getting involved in these kinds of studies as a research participant can be great way of learning more about the work of scientists, especially given that we tend to receive sensationalised messages about nutrition and health research from the media. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify for this study – they’re recruiting male participants. But for any men who are reading: the PRO-GRAIN team are looking for some healthy males willing to eat oats for the sake of science.

Recruitment leaflet for men interested in getting involved in a study of the nutritional properties of oats.

Entomophagy: The consumption of insects as food

Edible Insects

Insects proved to be a popular snack choice for visitors to our stand.


Insect Taste Notes

Some mixed opinions on our edible insects.

Our edible insect challenge was one of the stand-outs of the day. We wanted to encourage people to think about the growing population and consequent increasing demand for protein. Edible insects are a cheap, nutritious, protein-rich food, and a common snack in many parts of the world.

Water Bug Tasting

This brave fellow ate one of our giant water bugs – not for the feint-hearted!

Insect farming uses a fraction of the energy, water and land needed to raise livestock. Who knows – perhaps bugs will become a regular part of the UK diet in the future? Fish and chips with a side of crispy bamboo worms…

But it wasn’t all about snacking on whole insects – wings, legs, antennae and all.  We also considered less confronting ways of consuming insects by holding a brownie blind tasting. People sampled brownies from two trays – one batch was made with wheat flour and the other was made with a mixture of wheat flour and flour milled from crickets.

Blind Tasting with normal and cricket flour brownies

Which ones are cricket flour brownies?

Tasters were asked to guess which plate contained cricket flour brownies. I can now reveal that it was PLATE A! We’ve tallied up the responses and found that 60% of people made a correct guess. Most people, myself included, seemed to think that while the wheat brownies and cricket brownies tasted different from each other, they were both delicious and there wasn’t an ‘insecty’ taste to the cricket brownies.

All in all it was great day out.  We were busy but we had lots of fun. Many thanks to everyone who was involved.

And the fun fact that I learned for the day? The people of Reading are well up for the challenge of munching on insects!

Learn more about edible insects at The Crunch.


Inspiring Creativity with Objects: Collections-based activities for families

During her time at MERL as Public Programmes Manager, covering maternity leave, Phillippa Heath has introduced some some great new workshops enabling families to get closer to our collections. In this post, Phillippa looks at how the positive reaction to the new sessions will influence our future planning for families…

Whenever we plan a family events programme at the Museum, we look for fun and engaging ways we can relate activities to the collections in the Museum whether it is through our objects, archives or books, or even the themes they represent. This helps us create unique experiences that our visitors wouldn’t find elsewhere.  Whatever the age group, there’s always something we can call on for inspiration in the collections, our Victorian building or the beautiful garden.

During my time working at MERL, I have tried to ensure our activities allow opportunities for our family visitors to get even more up close and personal to the collections than usual. During the Easter holidays, as part the Basket Weaving workshops and the Decoupage Egg Cup workshops, all attendees visited the object store on the mezzanine level. The visit to the object store- a treasure trove of collections normally only accessible on guided tours- allowed us to get a closer look at specially selected objects relating to the workshop themes.

basket workshop

Families visit the mezzanine to see the basket collection before making their own woven fabric baskets

For each of these workshops, the families were able to see relevant artefacts, ask museum staff questions about them and carry out observational drawings before moving on to do their craft. We received some amazingly positive feedback. One Mum, Dr Emma Mayhew, wrote:

“I genuinely thought that the entire workshop was really well thought out, highly educational and thoroughly enjoyable. The Mezzanine level trip was a great new feature…. The brief talk, interactive question and answer session and activity worksheet mirror the kinds of activity that they would normally undertake during a school trip so this is all familiar to the children and makes parents feel that they really are engaged in an activity with educational value. Obviously the craft session afterwards was really enjoyable as well. Our decoupage egg cups and eggs are taking pride of place in our Easter display”.

Decoupage Easter display

The Mayhew’s lovely Easter display including their decoupage egg cups made at MERL

Since Easter, we have continued to embrace this type of workshop structure for other family activities including the Palmer’s Painted Glass workshop in May half term and, for the Summer’s Applique and Stitch , Felt Making and Bread Making workshops we are hoping to do something similar. In the Applique and Stitch workshop, families will have the unique opportunity to see one of our huge 1951 wall-hangings as it is being worked on by an expert conservator, who is preparing it for being displayed for the first time in 60 years as part of the Our Country Lives project. The families will then use this as inspiration for creating their own landscape wall-hanging using layered fabrics and hand stitching.

One of Michael O'Connell's 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

One of Michael O’Connell’s 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

This is definitely the kind of activity we would like to explore further. As a result of this and, in conjunction with the fact that we are currently developing a collection of objects suitable for handling, it is very much hoped that our visitors will be able to gain even more from their visits to MERL in the years to come.

If you would like get involved in planning future family activities at MERL, why not come along to our special family tour on July 29th (2.30-3.15pm) to find out about plans for a Family Forum as part of the Our Country Lives redevelopment project. It’s free and there’s no need to book so we look forward to seeing you.




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

Press release, October 14th 2013

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

Apple schematic from the Herefordshire Pomona

Apple schematic from the Herefordshire Pomona

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

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

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

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

Apples Berkshire Cider by Duncan Mackay

Apples Berkshire Cider by Duncan Mackay

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

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

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

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

5 mins with…Claire Smith

Claire Smith is our Learning  Assistant and part of our Visitor Services team, so if you’ve been to MERL recently, you will probably have met her! This week she’s been busy preparing for the school holidays, and has learnt a new skill…


What have you been working on this week? This week I’ve been working on getting the new summer holiday activities ready – in particular the new Animal Trail. Fred, the museum’s Conservator, kindly fixed all the animals in place for me in various places all around the garden. I then wrote a quiz sheet, with clues for which animals to look for and where to find them. Also for the garden, I’ve had a big sort-out of all of our summer games. We now have several boxes of activities that children of all ages can play with outside, from the ever-popular Egg and Spoon Race, to a giant Snakes & Ladders board!

One of the animals on our new Animal Trail in the garden

One of the animals on our new Animal Trail in the garden

I also had a spinning lesson, from a member of the Berkshire Spinners, Weavers & Dyers Guild. We recently acquired a spinning wheel for the Learning department, so I need to learn how to use it so that I can demonstrate it for future activities. My next task is to make sure that all of our drop spindles (borrowed from the Ure Museum) are in good condition, before our Super Spinning workshop next week.

Claire trying out her new-found spinning skills

Claire trying out her new-found spinning skills

The lovely thing about the role of Learning Assistant is that it’s different all the time! Each week I come up with a different activity for the Toddler Time group, trying to keep the theme related to the museum and garden. I’m also involved with family activities during the school holidays. We recently finalised our workshops for October half term and the Big Draw, and we’re already making plans for Christmas and the New Year. We’ll be showcasing material from our Huntley & Palmer archive, to make Victorian Christmas cards and biscuit boxes – biscuits not included, sadly!   How will you be involved in the Our Country Lives project? From a Learning point of view, my main involvement at this stage is in feeding back my experience of working with families around the museum, and contributing ideas on how to improve the visitor experience for families. I also work as part of the Visitor Services team, which means I can collect feedback and think about improving the visitor experience for all of our different audiences, from the moment they first arrive at the museum.

Press Release: Uni Museum brings rural past alive for families

With the school summer holidays approaching, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is launching new family tours as part of its exciting summer programme.

The Museum, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, was recently nominated as one of the country’s top 20 Family Friendly museums by Kids in Museums, but far from being content with this achievement, the team at the Museum is constantly looking for ways of improving visits for its youngest visitors and encouraging families to come enjoy the Museum.

This August families will be able to take part in free, interactive tours specially designed to help them engage with and understand the stories behind the Museum’s collections.

Families will meet characters from England’s rural past, such as Alan the sheep shearer, Dave the blacksmith, Molly the dairy maid, Gabriel the farm hand and Maggie the Thatcher and visit the Museum with them as they bring to life what it was like to work in the villages, farms and fields of the past and tell their personal stories. Each 30 minute tour will be delivered by two characters from the team.

The tours have been developed by staff and volunteers in the MERL tour guide team with the aim of bringing to life the objects on display in the Museum and helping families get an idea of what kind of lives the people who used them might have lived.

Kaye Gough, MERL volunteer (Gabriel the farm hand) said: “We’ve had tremendous fun creating this series of family tours. We hope the visitors who join us will enjoy it as much as us. We hope visitors learn more about this fascinating museum and the stories it has to tell.”

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, said “Once again, our volunteers have surpassed themselves with their dedication and positive attitude to another project. Every character has been carefully researched and we are sure that visitors will have a fun and educational experience!”


The tours take place on 8th, 15th and 22nd August, at 11:30 at the Museum of English Rural Life, they are free but booking is required as places are limited.  To book, and for details of the tours and other events in the Museum’s programme of summer events for families, visit the website at or call 0118 378 8660 during opening hours.



For more information about the MERL’s summer programme, visit or call 0118 378 8660.

For more information for media, contact Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at the Museum of English Rural Life on 0118 378 8660 or Pete Castle at the University of Reading press office on 0118 378 7391 or


Notes to editors:

MERL, part of the University of Reading, draws on and adds to the University’s unique research into agriculture, history and rural practices, and has collections permanently open to the public at the University’s historic and recently refurbished London Road campus.