Using history to help patients reminisce at Royal Berkshire Hospital

Written by Phillippa Heath, Audience Development Project Manager

One important aspect of the Our Country Lives Activity Plan is the strengthening of links with our close neighbours the Royal Berkshire Hospital. As  our Audience Development Project Manager, I’ve been involved in one particular aspect of this partnership: an innovative reminiscence project using the MERL collections as inspiration.

Therapist and Care Crew Manager Lyndsey Openshaw with hospital patients

Therapist and Care Crew Manager Lyndsey Openshaw with hospital patients

For a number of years the Royal Berkshire Hospital has been a regular destination for MERL staff on the search for lunches or mid-afternoon snacks from one of its many retail outlets. Interestingly, visitor evaluation of the museum before our closure suggested that this flow of people was reciprocated, with roughly 10% of our visitors coming from the Hospital. The Our Country Lives project is enabling us to formalise this relationship and explore what more can be done to raise awareness of the Museum for hospital patients, their families and hospital staff. The first part of this process has been a collaboration with patients, staff and volunteers of the Hospital’s Elderly Care Ward.

Initial conversations with staff over the Summer months quickly revealed an enthusiasm to use the MERL collections as a basis for reminiscence with patients. Reminiscence (or the use of life histories – written, oral, or both – to improve psychological well-being) is proven to have particular benefit for older people. Lyndsey Openshaw, Hospital Therapist and Manager of the Care Crew team, explains the benefits of reminiscence for this audience in more detail:

“Using physical objects and pictures to encourage older people, and those with dementia, to talk about old memories, is a wonderful way to bring back happy memories. It also helps us to facilitate conversations with the patients – which is hugely beneficial in their recovery, as some older people feel lonely.”

As part of the reminiscence sessions, patients experience MERL’s film and photographic collections

As part of the reminiscence sessions, patients experience MERL’s film and photographic collections

Formally launched in October, the project is inspired by one of the Museum’s new galleries: A Year on the Farm. A programme of fortnightly sessions has been devised, exploring different topics relating to a year in the countryside. With topics as diverse as Harvest, Sports and Pastimes and Gardening and Growing, sessions draw on the museum’s extensive film and photographic archive, using them as a starting point for conversations with patients.


The sessions are delivered jointly with hospital Chaplain Lorraine Colam, and frequently involve sensory experiences appropriate to the topic such as music, food, drink and handling opportunities. Many of the topics relate to activities or events which patients may have experienced in their lifetime, be they from rural or urban backgrounds. It is fascinating to hear so many different stories in relation the topics and, from the Museum’s point of view, it tells us so much about our collections and the public’s reactions to them.

Chaplain, Lorraine Colam, reminiscing with patients.

Chaplain, Lorraine Colam, reminiscing with patients.


Our most recent session focused on ‘Sports and Pastimes’, during which we watched the 1944 archive film, Twenty Four Square Miles. This film focused on the life of people living in one part of rural Oxfordshire and proved to be a great stimulus for memories. Photographs also resulted in some fascinating discussions (examples of which can be found below) .


Sessions will be continuing throughout the year, during which we are looking forward to many more fascinating conversations with patients and staff of the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

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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!