Our Country Lives update: Bringing our wagons down to earth

Alongside finalising gallery layouts, coming up with exciting ideas for interactive displays and filling in foundations for our extensions, our biggest update for you this week is the removal of our wagons from their monorail.

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

Designs for the gallery and possible objects for display are coming together

wagon move 1

wagon move2












We managed to finish the job in one day with the help of a specialist removal company, a fork-lift truck and much bated breath. If you haven’t been to the Museum before, for the last ten years we have had several wagons raised from the floor on a monorail running down the length of the galleries. Each wagon was attached to its own beam which was first removed from its supports and brought to the floor; once the wagon’s own wheels were supporting it, the beam was then lowered from the wagon itself and taken away. One main worry was that since the wagons have been off their wheels for so long, and their wood so desiccated from the dry atmosphere of our building, that they may be a little brittle when on the floor again. They all, however, came down without a hitch and are now waiting with the rest of the collection to be redisplayed.


The reasoning behind their removal is that the wagons currently take up precious space in the rafters where we would like to build a new gallery for our ploughs. The Wagon Walk, where the majority of our wagons and carts will now be, will allow us to show our nationally important collection at its best. As well as exploring the craftsmanship and technical complexity of a wagon’s construction, we will also be delving into personal stories of those behind the wagons and how they used them. We will reveal how these wagons are intimately tied to their landscapes but also to local building traditions, and how the geography dictates the size, shape and construction of every single one of our unique wagons.



Your country lives and your museum

Assistant Curator, Dr Ollie Douglas traces the Museum’s history of building links with communities and invites readers to get involved in our current project

In the 1950s, when the Museum of English Rural Life was first established, countryside people were experiencing a period of massive change. Of course, the lives of people who live and work in rural areas have never been unchanging. It was this sense of transformation that the Museum set out to capture by gathering evidence directly from farmers and others connected with the countryside. The first curators tried different ways to build links with these communities. They visited agricultural shows and events, appeared on the television, and spoke to country people with links to the University.


The Museum’s stand at the Royal Agricultural Show, Nottingham, 1955

As a result of these early efforts, the collections, displays, and role of the Museum came to echo the interests and ideas of those who lay at the very heart of rural life and work. It rapidly amassed an amazing array of disused implements and equipment, information about traditional ways of working the land, and accounts of the social lives of rural people, past and present. These objects, archives, and stories were given to the Museum and have been held safely for the benefit of future generations.

As part of the Our Country Lives redevelopment project, we are keen to strengthen links with these ‘future generations’, including the urban people who live near the Museum and those rural communities whose heritage we still preserve. The project will transform the way both these sets of people can connect with their shared history through new displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities.

In many ways there is little to separate us from the Museum’s founders. We still have a stand at the Berkshire Show every September and have made efforts in recent years to get out and about and build links with people who live, work, and use the countryside today. Like those early curators we are also keen to engage these groups in shaping our displays and activities. Do you have strong links to the countryside? Might you be able to help?

Berks show Sept 2010 095

Gathering memories from visitors to the Berkshire Show 2010 on our MERL and The Archers timeline

To ensure that our plans are relevant, interesting and focused on the type of issues that are important to present-day rural communities, we want to consult a range of people with links to farming and the countryside. If this is you and you would be happy to get involved in our new ‘Countryside Forum’, please contact Phillippa Heath. There are many different ways in which you can be involved so please do not worry if you only have a little time to give. We’re interested in hearing what you think, whatever your connection to the countryside, whether you have a farming background, are studying agriculture, have always lived and worked in the countryside, have ‘escaped to the country’ or enjoy leisure activities in the countryside.

The return of King Alfred

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Pictured above are the original drawings and effigies made by Jesse Maycock in 1961. Our King Alfred, featured in the middle, has since lost his sword.

It was just before Christmas that marked King Alfred’s return to Reading, 1143 years after the siege and loss of the town to Ivar the Boneless in 871 CE and Alfred’s subsequent exile to a swamp (where he took up a bit of baking).

We’re not talking about the actual Alfred of course, the site of whose body remains shrouded in mystery, but our own thatched version pictured above in the middle. Our Alfred has not been in a swamp but for the past few months has been one of the star objects of Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition, which has since traveled to the beautiful Compton Verney in Warwickshire. The aim of the exhibition was to address the neglect of folk art by the established art community, but also to ask why we shun it in favour of other art forms.

Our King Alfred being unpacked at Compton Verney.

Our King Alfred being unpacked at Compton Verney.

A very peculiar and individual object, our effigy was in fact one of three made by Master-Thatcher Jesse Maycock for University College Oxford in 1961 for their Commemoration Ball. Anyone involved in moving it can tell you that the effigy is solid, its rigidity achieved by a central pole and the working of the straw and osier peggings. Although similar in style to our straw-dollys it is made of ordinary rick straw and uses thatching techniques, rather than those used by straw-dolly makers. The other two effigies pictured above depict a seated King Alfred and William Archdeacon of Durham, respectively the mythical and actual founders of the College in 1247. The former is now at Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton, while the latter sadly went up in flames.

Alfred was recently the star of our shop event.

Alfred was recently the star of our shop event.

The previous location of King Alfred.

The previous location of King Alfred.

For us, King Alfred has primarily been an example of a master craftsman’s work. He has, however, been very popular with families and captured the imaginations of our Toddler Time members, no doubt because our toddlers used to meet below his case, but also because he is simply more accessible as one of the few objects in our collection with a face! This relationship has continued as we redevelop, with our toddlers recently making their own stained-glass versions of Alfred for our shop window (shown above). As part of Our Country Lives, we hope to explore the more complicated associations and meanings behind our King Alfred, not least his legendary role in the making of both England and English identity. We have always known that he is well-made, sculpted out of straw and interesting to look at, but his canonization in the country’s foremost British art gallery means we cannot avoid treating him as both art and craft (although some would argue there is no distinction).

We would be very interested to hear what King Alfred means to you as well so please leave comments!




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).

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!

Project update: Getting closer to closing

written by Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer

When we put the date of our last Saturday’s Our Country Lives project Information Day in the diary way back in the summer, we never imagined that the timing would be so close to the wire. Since receiving the news that we had been successful in our bid to the HLF, colleagues have been working hard to get everything in order and we finally confirmed our ‘Permission to start’ from the HLF on October 2nd, just two days before the event! This meant that we were able to announce on the day that we will be closing on October 31st. This will allow our collections team to start work on packing away the artefacts to keep them safe while the builders are in for the first stage of the project. (In fact, work has already started on dismantling some parts of the galleries.)

So there was a palpable sense of excitement at the Information Day as it finally felt as though we could start the ball rolling. This was the first time that we were able to share visuals of plans for the new galleries with the public and unveil the first two artist impressions. It was actually quite nerve-wracking to be revealing the plans we’ve been working on for so long – and have so much invested in. They’re not all finalised yet, but still…

A new extension will feature the chance to have your say in current issues, marvel at objects showcasing our technological ingenuity and witness our 1951 Festival of Britain wall hanging. Artist’s Impression (Fabrice Bourrelly/3DW).

A new extension will feature the chance to have your say in current issues, marvel at objects showcasing our technological ingenuity and witness our 1951 Festival of Britain wall hanging. Artist’s Impression (Fabrice Bourrelly/3DW).

It was quite a relief in the end, therefore, to hear positive reactions all round, with many visitors expressing their excitement at the prospect of a new MERL. We had quite a diverse audience, with attendees ranging from long-standing local supporters, regular family visitors and first-time visitors, as well as some who happened to be visiting and came across the event by chance, and they were all interested in slightly different aspects of the plans.

The event was originally billed as just an ‘Information Day’ aimed at communicating details of the project, the changes involved and letting people know about the ways they could get involved. As we planned the day, however, we added activities which enabled us to turn it into a bit more of a consultation, a two-way conversation. Our Curator, Isabel Hughes, did give two presentations describing our plans in detail.

Isabel Hughes describing the proposed changes to the galleries

Isabel Hughes describing the proposed changes to the galleries

But we also took the opportunity to seek feedback, involve visitors in some image key-wording and trial an object handling activity (find out about the questions that raised in Greta Bertram’s blog here).

OCL object handling

Jenny showing visitors some lace-making tools

Following on from our recent discussions about perceptions of the countryside at the Berkshire Show, we showed visitors contrasting images of the countryside from our collections, and asked them to choose words to describe what they are about rather than what they are pictures of.

As part of the Countryside21 project, we have been tagging our image collections with these words to help researchers find them more easily. We think that tagging images with keywords relating to concepts and emotions such as ‘hardship’ or ‘freedom’ – what the image is about – will be more interesting and useful than only using descriptive keywords such as ‘cow’, ‘farm’ or ‘labourers’. As well as being an important part of the Countryside21 project, this work will also help us to plan the interpretation for the new galleries by giving us a better understanding of what concepts and stories our photographs can communicate. (Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer, has blogged about ‘aboutness’ here)

Visitors on Saturday thought this picture is about: freedom, childhood

Visitors on Saturday thought this picture is about freedom & childhood


Visitors described this picture as being about: hard work

Visitors used words such as ‘back-breaking’, ‘grafter’, & ‘hard work’ to describe this image

It was a very popular activity with all ages, with people seeming to be keen to think about how the images made them feel and record their emotional responses. We’ll be getting children to have a go at this during half term too.

University Archivist, Guy Baxter, explaining the 'Aboutness' idea

University Archivist, Guy Baxter, explaining the idea of ‘aboutness’

Also inspired by our stand at the Berkshire Show, we made the ‘Chocolate Box’ colouring activity available for families; this time, however, located in the temporary exhibition area where the objects collected as part of the Collecting 20C Rural Cultures project, and which were used as inspiration for the drawings of twee countryside scenes, are actually on display. (See it on Pinterest) It was really great to see that the children were genuinely excited to see the Wedgwood plate with the nostalgic Shire horse image, the Lilliput Lane farmhouse, and Norman Neasom watercolour.

Lilliput Lane farm

This is L2013, Bluebell Farm, in the Lilliput Lane collection of country cottages which was available from 1996-99. Our multi-talented Visitor Services Asst Claire, drew a picture of this as an example of a ‘chocolate box’ image for children to colour in

We also took the opportunity to bring down from the mezzanine store a selection of objects to show how the displays will change in the new galleries, such as highlighting the countryside as a place for living as well as a place for working, and using archives and photographs alongside objects to enhance the displays. We plan to move away from a focus on large-scale agricultural machinery and technological change, and instead tell the stories of the people who lived and worked in rural England.

It was really good to have time talk to people individually, explain the proposed changes, and gauge their reactions.  We weren’t recording our conversations formally this time, but it was useful to have some ‘quality time’ with people who were really interested in talking about the future of MERL. We will be looking at ways to carry out formal visitor consultations with our museum designers throughout the closure period.

Isabel Hughes discussing plans with visitors

Isabel Hughes discussing plans with visitors


We also asked a few direct questions and provided post-its…


OCL questions


We are still be interested in hearing your responses to these questions, so feel free to post a comment below…


Chocolate box images & perceptions of the countryside

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer, shows how, with a little bit of research, it is possible to link chocolate and English Rural Life, and invites you to come and talk about your perceptions of the countryside at our first Our Country Lives Information Day on Sat 4th October.

Staff and volunteers spent last weekend on the University of Reading’s chocolate-themed (award-winning!) stand at the Berkshire Show. MERL has been a part of the stand for several years, adding a historical element and a family activity to dairy, bread and fruit themes. After last year’s show, when the other departments involved suggested that the 2014 stand could be on the theme of chocolate, we were worried that we would find it hard to find a link with our collections – not much cocoa is grown in rural England after all! Fortunately, Assistant Curator Ollie Douglas was quick to remind us of the concept of the ‘chocolate box’ image of the countryside.

I’d heard of this term, but had never asked myself why quaint pictures of cute cottages and pretty rural scenes have come to be labelled ‘chocolate box’ images. Preparing our display for the show, colleagues explained all; it appears to be down to Cadburys:

Bournville is a ‘model village’ developed in the late-nineteenth century by the Cadbury family to house the workforce of their chocolate factory. At that time Bournville was on the rural outskirts of Birmingham, though it has now been subsumed by suburban expansion. The Cadbury family believed they had a paternalistic responsibility to provide a healthy and moral rural community for their workers. Families moved from inner-city slums to a planned village with large semi-detached houses, schools, a boating lake and a picturesque cricket pitch next to the factory. This scene was made famous on Cadbury Milk Tray chocolate boxes throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

The term ‘chocolate box art’ is now often used to refer to such quaint countryside scenes, and the use of this imagery in the arts, entertainment and popular culture is often idealistic and sentimental. Our ideas about the countryside are often influenced by these representations.

Although we don’t actually have one of these chocolate boxes in our collections, we’ve recently deliberately acquired objects, as part of the HLF-funded Collecting 20C Rural Cultures project, which portray this kind of image of the countryside, such as a collection of ‘rural nostalgia’ plates, by Wedgwood…

rural nostalgia plate

The most popular image with visitors on our Berkshire Show stand was this one from a Wedgwood plate

This Cottage Ware tea set from the 1940s, made by Keele Street Pottery of Stoke-on-Trent, captures the quintessential image of the quaint thatched English country cottage. (MERL 2009/52 – 2009/54)

Cottageware teaset (MERL 2009/52 – 2009/54)

1940s Cottage Ware teaset (MERL 2009/52 – 2009/54)

This 120 piece wooden jigsaw puzzle entitled ‘A Cotswold Alley’ was made by Chad Valley, in the 1920s. The jigsaw depicts a classic ‘chocolate box’ cottage scene. (MERL 2008/99/1 – 2008/99/2)

Chad Valley Jigsaw

1920s Chad Valley jigsaw (MERL 2008/99/1 – 2008/99/2)

We copied, traced and reproduced these images for children to colour in on the stand at the show and used them as a starting point for talking about how our perceptions of the countryside are influenced.

Colouring in activity

The working title of one of the new galleries is ‘Rural views and perceptions’. It will tell the stories of the home in the countryside (as a place for both living and working) and the changing nature of crafts. We really want to explore the idea that the popular image of the countryside is part-myth and part-reality, and to consider the contrast between the idea/ideal and reality of living in the countryside, and think about how these ideas have come about.


Our ideas about the countryside are often influenced by how rural people and places are represented in the arts and popular culture.  Sometimes we are given a nostalgic sense of a golden rural past, idealising the countryside way of life.













In contrast, the countryside can also be represented as a remote and frightening wilderness, removed from the rest of society.  Film makers have often portrayed the countryside as a harsh and brutal place, with the quietness seeming sinister rather than peaceful.

For people from more urban backgrounds, the countryside is sometimes seen as a place to retreat at weekends and for holidays, yet for rural dwellers, living and working in the countryside can mean a life of hard labour and sometimes even poverty.

Root harvest in the fens 54_11_11_20

At the Information Day on Saturday 4th October, we’ll be asking visitors to look at contrasting images of life in the countryside from our photographic archives and talk about how they affect their perception of the countryside.


Information Day, Saturday 4th October, 2-4pm
Come and see the current displays for one last time, learn more about the project, see the first artist impressions of some of the proposed new galleries, and find out how you can get involved…

  • Hear a short presentation outlining plans for the new galleries, facilities and activities
  • See artists impressions and initial plans for the new galleries
  • See some of the hidden treasures from the stores which will feature in the new displays
  • Have a go at object handling – an example of the kind of activity which will be available in the new museum
  • Take part in an ‘image keywording’ activity with staff to discuss contrasting images of the countryside & help inform one of the new galleries focussing on percetpions of the countryside
  • Make a chocolate box decorated with nostalgic rural images and see the objects which inspired them
  • Find out about the new Family Forum & Youth Forum and sign up to take part in consultations to have your say in the future of MERL
  • Enjoy delicious tea & cake!


Project update: What happens next?

Having heard the news of our project funding earlier this summer, you may be wondering what happens next? So in this post Alison Hilton, marketing officer, answers some ‘frequently asked questions’

2Has work on the project started yet?

We are still going through the processes required before work on the Our Country Lives project can start. There are contractors to engage, project staff to employ and plenty of red tape to cross!  You will, however, notice some small changes taking place in the Museum already, as our Conservator prepares for the process of moving the entire collection out! The Museum is still open and there’s plenty to see, but if you’re planning a visit to see a specific object, it would be a good idea to check in advance that the item is still on display. There is also the ongoing conservation work on the Festival of Britain wall-hangings taking place in the ‘farming cycle’, which means we are currently unable to offer the brass rubbing activity.

The collections team are already well into the in depth research phase, combing the object records and archives for details relevant to each of the new themed galleries. They will be blogging regularly about their fascinating finds here and on the research blog.

When will the Museum close?

We are hoping to have everything in place in the next few weeks, and are expecting to close by the end of October – we will let you know as soon as we have a confirmed date. We expect to reopen at the end of 2015 / beginning of 2016.

Will the reading room be closed?

The only part of the building to be affected by the closure will be the Museum itself. Access to the reading room and Special Collections Services, shop and rooms for hire will be unaffected.

OCL Big Draw posterAre you running events this term?

We are holding a public Information Day on Saturday October 4th at which we will be able to share more details about our plans, including the latest artist impressions of the new galleries.

To give us time to concentrate on Our Country Lives, we will not be running our regular Autumn events such as Apple Day, the Traditional Craft Fair and the Annual Lecture.  These popular events will be back when we open!

Our monthly Rural Reads book club will continue to meet on the last Thursday of every month but will move into the Staircase Hall and expand it’s remit to include the University’s Special Collections.

Toddler Time will run as usual on Friday mornings throughout September and will then from October 3rd will take place next door in the Learning Hub on the first Friday of each month.

There will be one family workshop, The Our Country Lives Big Draw, during half term.

You can find details of the Our Country Lives events programme here.

How can I get involved?

Once the project is up and running there will be lots of new volunteering opportunities and community projects to take part in. Our Volunteer Coordinator will keep you updated via the Volunteers’ Voice posts. In the meantime, we are launching a Family Forum and a Youth Forum this Autumn. If you’d like to find out more, call Rob Davies on 0118 378 8660 or email merlevents@reading.ac.uk



A stitch in time: Conservation of 1951 wall hangings begins

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

Today, a very exciting part of Our Country Lives began – in fact, it is almost the starting pistol to the project! Accredited conservator Kate Gill will begin conservation work on two of our Michael O’Connell wall hangings. These are huge, 7×3.5m pieces of textile art made for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and this work will allow us to put them on public display for the first time in around 62 years in our new extension. See this moving GIF to see its unveiling!

We have only previously brought out the hangings for special occasions or for researchers.

We have only previously brought out the hangings for special occasions or for researchers.

Michael O'Connell in his Melbourne workshop.

Michael O’Connell in his Melbourne workshop.

Their creator has been described as a ‘Lost Modernist’, a textile artist whose style and colour typify the 1950s and ‘60s, though at the time they were considered stylishly bold, brash and modern. Artistically, O’Connell found his feet in Melbourne, Australia where he honed his craft skills by building his own house in 1923, something he was forced into after a health inspector condemned his previous home, which consisted of a tent and bits of ragged furniture. His romantic lifestyle on the outskirts of Melbourne society, often journeying into the Australian bush to paint and draw, was a far cry from his upbringing in Dalton, Cumbria. His previous aim was to study Agriculture but his artistic talents were never in question: when held as a prisoner of war in WWI, one of his guards complimented his work and encouraged him to pursue a career in it.

It was also in Australia where O’Connell hit upon various pioneering methods of dying fabric with his wife, Ella Moody, both of whom were prominent in the Australian Arts & Craft Society. They returned to England in 1937 and developed a close working relationship with Heal’s of London, who proved instrumental after the Second World War in supplying fabric for the Festival of Britain wall hangings.

O’Connell’s commission required wall hangings to decorate the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, held in May-September 1951. The Festival came after six painful years of recovery and rationing and was intended to celebrate British industry, science, art and people, but it was also thought that another great exhibition would help lift the spirits of the nation after the Second World War. It was intended to be a ‘Tonic to the Nation.’ For the hangings themselves, O’Connell had to reflect the versatility and variety of farming in Great Britain, and so he took a tour of the nation, reflecting what he saw and experienced in his art. The result are seven hangings covering most of Great Britain, representing the distinctive character of our regions and providing an artistic snapshot of the state of British farming in the early 1950s.

The hangings will be conserved within the galleries on this large table.

The hangings will be conserved within the galleries on this large table.

The two hangings which we are conserving cover Cheshire and Kent, which we believe show the breadth of the artist’s skill. Our contracted conservator, Kate Gill, will be removing creases in the fabric, as well as repairing damage, cleaning them and reshaping them in preparation for display. She will be working on the textiles in our large gallery which currently contains the Steam Engine, Threshing Machine and Farming Cycle, as this is the only space large enough to accommodate them in the Museum. You are of course welcome to come and have a look!

The hangings will be displayed in rotation for five years each in their own special case, housed in a new extension to our gallery as part of Our Country Lives. We are also having a bookable family session tomorrow throughout the day where you can make your own wall hanging using fabric, stitching, and your own imagination!

How one of our new extensions may look with the wall hanging in it.

How one of our new extensions may look with the wall hanging in it.