Our Country Lives goes ahead with £1.7m HLF grant

We are all very pleased and excited to announce that we have been successful in securing a further £1.7m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, in order to redevelop MERL as part of the Our Country Lives project! You can see our press release here.


As it was #MusCake day this week as well, we thought we'd celebrate with an Our Country Lives themed cake.

As it was #MusCake day this week as well, we thought we’d celebrate with an Our Country Lives themed cake.

That we have got to this stage is testament to the huge amount of work we’ve already done in reviewing what we as a Museum stand for, and our plan for how we can best tell the story of English rural life to our visitors. One of the main reasons for redeveloping MERL is that we’re aware that there is a new generation of visitors who need different ways of engaging with our rural heritage through new, themed displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities. The galleries will be more engaging for adults and children alike, with things to interact with in the galleries, handling opportunities and far more digital interpretation of the collections, which will display the incredible depth and variety of our Archives, including film and photography.

Visitor evaluation – as it should – has played a big part in directing our work. The majority of our visitors do not live in the countryside, so we aim to reveal the relevance of the countryside to those whose lives have been spent in towns and cities. However, just because someone lives in the city obviously doesn’t mean they don’t have experience of or are entirely unaware of the countryside. As such, we will be exploring various popular themes such as craft and craftspeople, how we view and perceive the countryside, and invite our visitors to tell us what they think of contemporary issues, such as climate change, food security and the relationship between town and country. We will also be focusing far more on the people, past and present, who make up the countryside, and what their stories can tell us about our continuing countryside story.

Staff and volunteers celebrated the news yesterday.

Staff and volunteers celebrated the news yesterday.

There is almost too much to tell you about in this one blog post – for instance, we’re uncovering displays unseen since the ‘50s (such as our amazing Festival of Britain wall hangings – see below), building a new gallery, creating new spaces for learning and exploring our collections digitally, embarking on an exciting three year programme of new events and activities – the list could go on (and does so here). For now, we’ve taken a breather to celebrate with cake and to take a month or so to make all the preparations necessary to start on the project proper.

One of the best ways to keep up with progress on the project will be this blog, but we’re also working on various other ways you can see what we’re doing behind the scenes, and what you can expect in the new MERL. We would also like to say thank you to all of those who have helped us get this far in the project: MERL staff, our funders, our consultants GuM and Cultural Consulting, the University of Reading, and of course our fabulous volunteers.

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.

Our Country Lives update: Volunteering opportunities

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

Since last week was National Volunteering Week, I thought it would be worth dwelling on the volunteering opportunities for this week’s update. Volunteers play a massive part in the operation of MERL, from staffing events to carrying out vital work on the conservation of objects, cataloguing archives and welcoming visitors on the front desk (see Rob’s post for more on why we love our volunteers).


A lot of our Mezzanine objects are going to have to be moved around later this year (Click the picture to see it move!).

Volunteers, of course, come from many walks of life and give up their time in museums for different reasons. Some volunteer as a way to build up their experience in the hope of one day working in a museum for money, a position I was in only a year ago. Others volunteer to meet people, to fill their days, or simply because they have a passion for our collections or subject matter.

Volunteers played a huge role in our recent Summer Fete.

Volunteers played a huge role in our recent Summer Fete.

We will hear in the next couple of weeks whether our HLF bid has been successful, and if so we are especially going to need the help of our volunteers, both old and new. It will be a unique volunteering experience as it means having a hand in a major Heritage Lottery Fund project, which is going to change the face of MERL and how we do things. If the project goes ahead then we will have to close for building work, but during this period we are going to need many able hands to help move our objects around the Museum, erect dust protection, deconstruct the current displays, record where every object has been moved to, as well as ensure nothing has been missed or broken. Later in the project we will also need help putting all of the objects back, erect the new displays, research the collections and catalogue objects and archives which will be displayed in the new Museum. We also have a range of exciting new projects for which we really want your help both setting up and being involved in (more on these in a later update!).

In conclusion, we will need all the help we can get, and we are dedicated to helping our volunteers get what they want from us. We will be putting out a proper call for what we need nearer to when we close the Museum, but until then please keep checking in on the blog for more on what Our Country Lives will be about.

Our Country Lives update: Michael Eavis’s French wellies

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

Yesterday we picked up our newest acquisition: a pair of wellies. It seems strange that a museum of English rural life wouldn’t have this icon of the countryside already in the collection, but they never really came onto our radar as an endangered object. The welly has never needed saving as it’s managed to persevere as a popular and versatile piece of footwear from its inception in 1817 as a military boot, through to being the favoured outdoor footwear for farmers and to the present day as a quasi-glamour item associated with festivals.

Michael Eavis wearing his wellies in front of his farmhouse.

Michael Eavis wearing his wellies in front of his farmhouse.

It is these last two associations which led us to the pair of wellies pictured above. They have been well-used over a ten year period by Michael Eavis, Somerset dairy farmer and organiser of Glastonbury Festival. Despite the massive popularity of the festival which Michael has been running since 1970, he is first and foremost a farmer and the infamous Glastonbury mud is still caked on the soles of his wellies now sitting in the Assistant Curator’s office. His dairy herd are the highest yielding in Somerset and the 4th highest in the UK – and if he milked them three times a day rather than two he could even be the highest in the country. He has a great enthusiasm for his farm, his cows and the people who look after them. However, as founder of Glastonbury he has also overseen the birth of the welly as a practical fashion item, with revellers mucking about in the mud on his farm splashed across papers and TV reports (and subsequently onto the national psyche). Celebrities hounded by the paparazzi at the festival have their outfits scrutinised by tabloids and magazines, leaving the Hunter wellington boot to come out top in the fashion stakes. Festivals are not only a way for a select few farmers to earn extra income, but also a principal way in which people now enjoy the countryside.

Michael is a farmer first - his farm dominates the view from his garden, with the Pyramid Stage in the distance.

Michael is a farmer first – his farm dominates the view from his garden, with the Pyramid Stage in the distance.

There is one small hitch though: these wellies are French. Should this matter, as a museum of English rural life? I don’t think that it does, but I’m well aware that others may think differently. The message these wellies are meant to illustrate – that they have shifted in the public mind from practical farmers’ shoes to festival-goers’ shoes – is not affected by their origin. Michael Eavis is English, as is his farm, and presumably the shop he bought them in was also English (we’ll be ironing out these details in an interview later this year).

We're currently debating whether to keep the Glastonbury mud on the soles.

We’re currently debating whether to keep the Glastonbury mud on the soles.

This is an issue which I think we will encounter in various forms in the new displays as part of Our Country Lives. There are numerous stories and facts that we want to talk about with our visitors, but for some of these we may not necessarily have the objects to illustrate them, or the objects we have may have a difficult provenance (e.g. they are not from England, or we don’t know who owned them or where they’re from). Should this mean, then, that we don’t talk about certain issues or facts? It shouldn’t, as for every topic we don’t have an object for there is a wealth of archives, photographs and videos which we can use instead. In the case of these specific boots, I think they remain valid in the sense that they show the international side of English rural life, and our place in a new, globalised world market. To ignore the international links and global events that affect English agriculture and the economy would be a dishonest way of exploring English rural life, and as such will still feature in the new galleries. We are continuing to research and plan these galleries, but once we approach our final version we will be sure to let you know all about them on this blog!

Please touch: Future handling collection at MERL

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

One of the biggest complaints levelled at museums is that visitors cannot touch anything. Objects are put tantalisingly out of reach behind thin Perspex and glass, or an arms-length behind a velvet rope. It is annoying because objects are almost always meant to be touched, and especially so in our museum where many of our objects are made by hand or made to be used by hands. We have tools which benefit from decades or centuries of refinement to fit perfectly in the hand, as well as textiles, ceramics, pulleys and cranks which demand to be touched – their roughness, smoothness, ridges, pits, dimples or simply put: their texture, is often integral to understanding them. However this then runs up against the fact that if we let visitors touch everything, we soon wouldn’t have a museum left. We often ask our visitors not to touch because we have to ensure that the collection remains whole and in good condition for future generations to enjoy.

We looked at this smock as part of our workshop - it feels a lot better than it looks.

We looked at this smock as part of our workshop – it feels a lot better than it looks.

We spent a morning and part of the afternoon yesterday exploring this tension between preservation of our objects and all of the reasons why objects should be touched. It is obvious how simply by touching and interacting with an object you can learn so much more from it. By exploring a smock close-up you can see and feel the irregular hand-sewed seams as well as more fully appreciate the intricate detail of the smocking; by holding a flail you can feel how surprisingly light it is, yet imagine how heavy it may be after a day’s work (and the smoothness and many repairs of the flail showed it definitely had seen many a day’s work). There is also the fact that some people learn more from hands-on activities, and for people with visual impairments it is a necessity.

Would you like to handle some hands? Plaster casts of Joseph Arch's hands (MERL 75/16/1-2)

Would you like to handle some hands? Plaster casts of Joseph Arch’s hands (MERL 75/16/1-2)

It is fair to say, then, that people both specifically and in general can only learn so much by reading a label and looking at an object, and as such we are exploring the different ways in which we could have objects available to handle by group-booked sessions and normal gallery visitors. After looking at case-studies from the Manchester Museum, the Horniman Museum and the Museum of London, we began to look into the idea of volunteer-led handling opportunities within the galleries, as well as the logistics of creating a handling collection. Of course, we already do have some handling of objects at some events and visits, but it has usually been on an ad-hoc basis. However, the new galleries of MERL as part of Our Country Lives also mean we have a great opportunity to integrate handling into everything we do, and make it a permanent feature of the new museum. Our next step is to ensure we are targeting the right audiences with our handling opportunities, and decide what themes the handling collection should cover. We’ll be working with Charlotte Dew on how to plan and implement a new handling collection, who is helping us as part of our Arts Council England-funded project Reading Engaged.

Our Country Lives update: How we research

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

You may have noticed that we’ve been a bit quiet recently about our HLF-funded redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. This is because we’re waiting for a response from the Heritage Lottery Fund due on June 13th (fingers crossed), but also because a lot of us have been busy catching up on other projects such as Reading Connections, Countryside21 and Sense of Place. country lives logoLast week, however, has seen the project kick-started again with a couple of meetings focusing on how we should be researching the stories and objects we want to put into the new displays, as well as how we should be marketing the new MERL. We’re also reaching a stage where I can give more detailed project updates, and this series of posts will probably focus more on the research-side of things, as well as some behind-the-scenes of how we go about delivering such a huge project as Our Country Lives. To recap our research so far, we spent a lot the 2013 winter and spring of 2014 getting to grips with the huge amount of objects and archives in the MERL collection. As well as trying to make sure we’re representing the countryside in all of its complexity and diversity, we have to make sure that we’re choosing the best objects and archives for the job, backed up by solid and current research.

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

The stories we want to tell about rural life are sometimes driven by our objects, archival documents, video footage, or other types of media. Sometimes a problem can be that we do not have any objects to illustrate stories we want to tell, but in our case our problem is having too many objects. Did you know we have around 26,000 objects, archives covering 4,500 linear metres and a library of over 50,000 volumes? It’s obviously a good thing that we have such a large and diverse collection, but this is also a double-edged sword. Our museum has no off-site storage, and so everything has to fit into the galleries, mezzanine storage, and a new duplicate store which is being built at the back. Because of this, much of our work so far has been trying to find a place for all of our objects so that our designers could decide where to put essential things such as walls and doorways.

This is one of the reasons why we are putting our wagons in a line along the north wall; as well as being a new and interesting way of exploring this nationally important collection, it is also one of the only ways to fit them all into the galleries. The only other option was to have a few wagons in every single gallery, which we thought would overshadow the other collections. As for the rest of the collection, we have been combing through our catalogue and placing our objects into the galleries and storylines best suited for them. You can see an example of one of our spreadsheets below, which will be the base from which we decide where and why to put our objects, including how they fit in with key messages, generic learning outcomes and storylines. We will also work from these lists to engage in more detailed research on specific objects and subjects contained within the new galleries. The storylines and topics we want to explore are by no means final, however, and so we will also be spending a lot of time in the coming months ironing out our topics, consulting with experts, and having lengthy debates about what is in and what is out.

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

Essentially, the planning and delivery an almost entirely new museum is difficult and complicated, but it is also a rewarding and refreshing experience. If you would like to know a bit more about this aspect of the project or the project as a whole, feel free to drop me an email at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk , and keep an eye out for future updates.

Guest post: Our Country Lives project goes global with a ‘Stitch in Time’

MERL Fellow, Dr Jane McCutchan has written a guest post about her project with ‘Permeate’ trainee, Genell Watson, to encourage more visitors to MERL by local people with a BAME background

Local community and wider audiences are at the heart of our re-display and there are many chances to influence how we explore English rural life. ‘Green and pleasant’ was the theme chosen by the organisers for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, ‘Dull and boring’ was the opinion given by an Afro-Caribbean visitor to the Museum, adding ‘Why would people from ethnic groups in Reading want to come here?’

MERL Curator, Isabel Hughes, understands the challenge. Recent census statistics show that about eight percent of the population of Reading comes from a black or minority ethnic (BAME) community.  However, our visitor surveys, carried out as part of MERL’s Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Our Country Lives’ project,  show far fewer local people from these backgrounds visit the Museum.

In 2013 MERL had the opportunity to take on a Museum Trainee Fellow, Genell Watson, which was made possible with a bursary from the Arts Council England’s funded ‘Permeate’ scheme.  As part of her programme of activity, Genell considered new ways of appealing to local people with a BAME background.

Genell was asked to identify objects which held special significance and top of the list were the sewing machines in the Barnett Collection.  She liked the sewing machines because her mother had one and used it to make clothes for the family, in Jamaica.

Here was a common thread, but how could this be transformed into possible contact and outreach? Unlikely as it may seem, this is where I came in. I am a former MERL PhD student, and was recently awarded a Fellowship to compare the marketing strategies of Fowler steam ploughing engines and Singer sewing machines.  I shared desk space with Genell under the eaves of the museum and it didn’t take long for us to discover a mutual interest in sewing.  I’m a textile artist in my spare time. I dug out my coursework books of eye-catching samples to share with Genell, and an idea began to take shape for a quilt project.

Genell knew local community groups, but would they visit MERL and take part in the project? There was only one way to find out. Over two very wet days in October 2013, the two of us went from local church hall to community centre – 17 in total, with a book of samples and a message, ‘Hello, we are from the University of Reading, Museum of English Rural Life, and would like your help.’  The response was incredulous, ‘What us?’ … but the invitation was received with great pleasure. All of the groups said they would like to visit MERL in the future, and ladies from Slough Roots and the Aman Group volunteered to make our quilt. Reasons for not accepting the invitation at this time were that programme schedules were already full, groups lacked funding for transport to the Museum, and members might be nervous and so a follow-up visit was requested. We have made an application to the Ashley Family Foundation for future funding in the hope that we can work with more groups.

 Sewing bee2

Seven ladies from Slough Roots and the Aman Group, and their Co-ordinator, Cynthia Knight, visited MERL in November 2013 to see old quilts from the collections.  Ready to greet them were three sewing machines from the Barnett Collection including a clone of Singer model 28, dating to the 1920s, made for the UK market by Mundlos and Co. of Magdeburg, Germany. Cheap German-made versions of Singer machines were commonplace, when the designs fell out of patent, and were often copied. This one was called a ‘Royal’.

Slough roots sewing bee

When all the quilt blocks had been assembled, a follow-up visit to Slough for a ‘Quilting Bee’ was made in March 2014. As more and more people stopped by to ‘join the party’, and put a stitch in the ‘Community Lives’ quilt, the noise level rose. The finished quilt will go on display at Slough Public Library on 19th May before returning to Reading to be hung in the Reading Room at MERL.



Our Country Lives project submitted!

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

5MERL’s HLF project Our Country Lives reached an important milestone last Monday when we submitted our bid for second stage funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).  We will find out whether we have been successful in June.

Our consultants for the design of the new galleries, GuM, provided us with some fantastic visuals to accompany the bid which you can see below. However, most of our plans are still tightly under wraps until we finalise everything and, if we do get the go-ahead, start building in Autumn later this year, with our re-opening then due in late Summer 2015. Our Library and the University Special Collections will be open as usual.  Our events programme will continue until we close, and are currently thinking about possible activities and outreach to take place during our closure period.

A mock-up of how our wagons may be displayed

A mock-up of how our wagons may be displayed

We are looking forward to sharing far more about this project in the coming months, as we have exciting plans for new projects, activities and community events which will accompany our re-display. The designs and thinking behind our new galleries is also looking spectacular, so you should definitely keep an eye on this space for sneak-peeks and previews of what you can expect in the new MERL.

You should also keep an eye out for opportunities for how you can get involved – our local community and wider audiences are at the heart of our re-display and there will be many chances to influence how we explore English rural life.

If you would like more information on the project please contact Adam at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk


Keep up! Stakeholder consultation on MERL’s Our Country Lives project

MERL Curator of Collections and Engagement, Isabel Hughes, brings us up to date with progress on the Our Country Lives project

Our project plans are developing quite quickly now and one of the challenges is to keep all our various stakeholders informed including our volunteers, neighbours and other interested parties in the University.  Last week we held two sessions to update everyone on the how the project is developing.  About 40 people attended and heard presentations from myself and Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator.

We were able to explain the broad rationale of the project – to create more space around the building in order to improve both the displays and visitor facilities.

OCL plans

We are working with museum design consultants to create exciting new galleries


Alongside the redisplay of the galleries there will be a full programme of activities to attract new and existing visitors to MERL.

Planning for closure is just as important as planning for the reopening of MERL.  There are various important dates for us; 24 February 2014 is the submission date for our Heritage Lottery Fund.  We shall hear the outcome some time in June or early July.  If successful, that would give us 8 – 10 weeks to get ready for contractors arriving on site.  We can’t guarantee an exact start date for construction work but we would aim to offer a full programme of activities over the summer and would close the Museum from about October 2014.

During the closure we would keep the Special Collections, including the reading room open to the public.  We are thinking as well about events we might be able to offer as outreach around Reading.  The main casualty of this phase is likely to be the garden which may be used for contractors’ huts and would definitely be out of bounds to visitors. We are planning to redesign the garden to reflect the themes of the redisplay, however.

There is a lot of work to do to plan for reopening which is likely to take place in late Summer 2015.  We aim to offer an exciting set of launch events, underpinned by a revamped website and publicity materials.

At last week’s meetings our stakeholders seemed very positive about our plans and offered useful suggestions for enhancing things or forging new partnerships.

As you can imagine, the next couple of weeks before submitting our bid are going to be very busy for everyone at MERL, but we look forward to sharing more information over the coming months.


Our Country Lives project update: Activity planning

Isabel Hughes, MERL Curator, updates us on the work on the ‘Activity Plan’ for our Heritage Lottery Fund project

Earlier in the year, the Cultural Consulting Network was appointed to help MERL produce an activity plan as part of the Round 2 submission to the Heritage Lottery Fund for Our Country Lives.  The first section of an activity plan needs to address where an organisation is now.  MERL has gathered information about its visitors periodically but in order to present a current, rounded view of things now, a programme of audience research was set up over the summer.

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!


Visitors views on the current galleries and the events and activities offered by MERL were gathered by a team of volunteers, led by Volunteer Co-ordinator, Rob Davies.  (Read his Volunteers Voice posts here) Views were also sought from the volunteers themselves, including their motivation for participating in activity for MERL and Special Collections.  At a recent meeting Cultural Consulting Network reported back on the findings:

Our adult visitors are split 65% male, 35% female.  A huge majority (91%) are local and come from very local postcodes or within a 30 minute drive time.  Many are retired or middle aged.  We receive some visits from international or domestic tourists but very few from people from a black and minority ethnic background.  All our surveys flagged up a significant number of first time visitors but quite a view have visited several times and could be seen as ‘regulars’.  Dwell time in the museum is relatively short and that includes our visiting our temporary exhibitions.  MERL is increasingly popular with families, who again largely come from the local area or somewhere within a 30 minute drive time.  A significant proportion of children coming to events regularly are under seven.  We attract students to the Museum, particular those pursuing Museum Studies modules, 50% of whom are female, with a mix of ages achieved through a balance of mature students, most of them from a broad UK-wide catchment and very few foreign students.  Amongst academics visiting there is a broad gender balance and a wider age range which includes some people with disabilities.  Specialist groups come from further afield and are more or less mixed in age or gender, depending on the subject.

So far, so probably to be expected.  The interesting point that Cultural Consulting Network have picked out relates to motivations for visiting.  Our visitors tend to have a broad interest in museums and learning about rural history, but the number that connect this to an object-related experience is relatively low.  At least half the visitors are looking for a good day out and to share their experience with others.  A few were at the Museum as they were visiting friends and family.  About 10% came from the Royal Berkshire Hospital over the road, often visiting family members who were sick. There was no expectation amongst visitors that they would see anything that would connect with their own personal history.

When talking to volunteers some similar patterns emerged.  It was interesting that the percentages were reversed – more volunteers at MERL are female than male.  They were motivated by the experience they had; working with skilled, friendly and helpful staff.  However, they were not particularly motivated to volunteer because of the subject matter of the collections.

As a Designated museum with nationally important collections and boasting a really object-rich museum gallery, it is puzzling how visitors seem to be missing the connection with the objects.  Cultural Consulting Network are advising that making the experience with objects more vital and relevant must be at the heart of the redevelopment.  The challenge is to identify the stories that provide ‘a way in’ and make that object-rich environment more engaging.  That is for the next stage in our planning…and we’d love to hear your ideas!



Our Country Lives Update

written by Sophia Mirchandani, Katie Norgrove and Jocelyn Goddard, consultants working on Our Country Lives


We are founder members of Cultural Consulting Network, which provides professional consultancy services to the heritage and arts sectors. Specialising in research, evaluation, project development, funding and grants, we work closely with our clients to provide intelligent and workable solutions to suit individual needs.

We have spent many years working in the South East region and have seen the Museum of Rural Life change and develop over that time. We’re delighted to be part of the Our Country Lives team, continuing its progress with a new and exciting project.

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

Applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund go through a 2-stage process for grants at this level. We are currently in the middle – the development phase. This is the time for putting more detail into the plans, testing out assumptions, trying out new ideas and most importantly, talking to people. Once this has happened, we can produce an Activity Plan. This will be submitted as part of the 2nd round application. It will cover everything the Museum wants to achieve that will affect people, rather than buildings, objects or collections.

We began by finding out as much as we could about the people who visit MERL and use its collections – Why do they come? What do they like about us? What kind of people are they?  If you visited recently, you may have been asked to fill in a questionnaire to help us answer some of these questions.

Now we are moving on to think about the people we would like to visit and benefit from the collections, but who may need some changes to be made in order to make that possible or to improve their experience. Perhaps they only have a vague idea about MERL and what they might find there. Perhaps they would like more information about the objects in the displays, so that they can explain what they are seeing to their children. Or maybe they would want to get more involved – take part in a project or volunteer for an activity, for example.


If you would like to join in this kind of discussion, please get in touch with the Project Officer Adam Koszary at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk