Our Country Lives update

Can you believe it’s Autumn already? Since our last update in May we’ve had an extremely busy Summer finishing our research, laying cement and visiting farmers. Here’s a round-up:

1. We’ve had exciting new research into our objects, such as this shepherd’s surprising connection to Thomas Beecham of Beecham’s pills.

Henry Beecham's walking stick

Henry Beecham’s walking stick


2. We’ve finished the building of our new extensions, and we’ve already christened our Introduction Space with a McMillan Coffee morning!

It may not look like much, but  our extensions will give us much-needed room for exhibitions and events!

It may not look like much, but our extensions will give us much-needed room for exhibitions and events!


3. To make the MERL more relevant to visitors old and new we’ve continued recruiting for our Student, Family and Countryside Forums. This is so we can make sure we’re presenting as true and balanced a picture of the countryside as possible. If you’re interested in helping us tell the story of the English rural life, please email us at: merl@reading.ac.uk

Anne and Frank beer and milk


4. We’ve just about finished writing the labels for all of our galleries. Have you ever tried condensing the story of the English countryside into 150 words or less? It’s certainly a challenge but one we think we’ve met, and we can’t wait to show you what we’ve written.



5. Our cross-collections Tumblr blog was recognised as a Trending Blog by Tumblr’s own staff – give it a visit to find out why we deserved it.

One of our many Tumblr GIFs

One of our many Tumblr GIFs


6. We now know exactly what our galleries will be, what will be in them and what stories and facts we want to share with you. We have a rich variety of ways we’re going to explore English rural life in the new MERL, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates…



7. We’ve begun a partnership with the Royal Berkshire Hospital in which we are using museum artifacts to help treat dementia. Discussing historic ways of life through objects and photographs is a wonderful way to bring back happy memories to those with dementia, and can help boost patients’ memories and help make sense of past events.


Audience Development Manager Phillippa at the Royal Berks. Photo Credit: GetReading.


8. We’ve also begun work on making the MERL far more inclusive of Reading’s local communities. We’ve had the pleasure of talking to Katesgrove Community Association, Reading Chinese Association, The Greater Reading Nepalese Community Association, The Rising Sun and so many more. We hope to establish a variety of projects such as community allotments, exhibitions and film projects.

chinese as


9. You may also have seen us out and about, as we’ve been taking the Museum to the people while we’ve been closed. We’ve been talking to our local communities at East Reading Festival, winning prizes at the Berkshire Show and discussing sustainability at the Reading Town Meal. Keep a track of what we’re doing on our Events page.

Our fabulous volunteer Jenny at the Berkshire Show.

Our fabulous volunteer Jenny at the Berkshire Show.


There is plenty more we could tell you, but we’re keeping a few things up our sleeve as we prepare for our re-opening. To keep updated on our progress subscribe to this blog or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram!

Volunteers’ Voice #14: Volunteers and Our Country Lives

Written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.

As you will know, we have recently been awarded a significant grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund for our redevelopment project Our Country Lives. I do not exaggerate when I say that volunteers made an enormous contribution to this success and they will play a very important role in the delivery of the project as a whole over the course of the next three years.

Volunteers helped with visitor evaluation at last year's Fete.

Volunteers helped with visitor evaluation at last year’s Fete.

Volunteers supported the delivery of round one in many ways; for instance by helping us with the vast undertaking of our visitor research, from collecting through to collating the data. This helped us form a good idea of who our current audiences are and why they visit. Volunteers also attended consultancy and planning meetings, making valuable contributions to our thinking and our plans.

With the delivery of round two of the project our volunteers will again be essential. They will support many elements of delivering the project, from assisting with the care of the objects during this time of major transition to the support of and participation in community projects.

You may ask why we as an organisation felt it was so important for volunteers to play a role in this major grant application and delivery of the project. The truth is, volunteers play a crucial role in the day-to-day running of the University Museums and Special Collections Service. This project will have a major impact upon many areas of our service and we feel it is vital that volunteers are included.

With any major project work it is always necessary to update and talk to your volunteer team regularly. If they begin to feel that everything is happening behind their backs and they are being left behind, a feeling of discontent will grow amongst your team. I will include updates in the volunteer newsletter, send specific updates via email and hold regular team meetings. I will encourage them to read (and hopefully contribute to) the Our Country Lives blog where there will be regular updates.

At this time of great change it is important for everyone involved to go forward as one, ensuring the project will be an even greater success.



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: 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.

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.


MERL at the Museums Association conference #1: Our Curator’s view

In the first of a series of posts from our colleagues who attended the MA conference recently, Isabel Hughes, Curator of Collections and Engagement, summarises her talk on ‘Collecting Cultures’ and reflects on the conference as a whole…

The Museums Association Conference is the biggest gathering of museums people in the country.  Despite the cutbacks in the sector, this year there were 800 people in attendance.  The bulk of the sessions were divided between the themes of The Emotional Museum, The Therapeutic Museum and Tomorrow’s People.  Day one was rather taken up for me by the emotions involved in chairing one session, led with aplomb by our Volunteer Co-ordinator, Rob Davies, then dashing into the room next door to speak at a second one that was part of a formal announcement of a new round of Heritage Lottery Funds‘ Collecting Cultures programme which MERL has been part of for the last five years. I had been asked to share our experience of the programme, which has allowed MERL curatorial staff to acquire over 400 artefacts ranging from the clothes of a Newbury bypass protester to a Series 1 Land Rover!

MERL's Series 1 Landrover

MERL’s Series 1 Landrover

Our project, Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures, involved a number of us learning how to acquire through conventional means such as auctions, dealers and existing contacts but also to get acquainted with ebay and other online auction sites.  We had to think laterally about how to collect to show themes of the twentieth century such as the growth of the suburbs and the technology of intensive farming.  Through collecting more printed ephemera we were able to address protest including those at Greenham Common as well as those led by the Countryside Alliance.  Our project has heavily influenced how we think about collecting today – what was once seen as outside our remit, has often been reconsidered as we look more at the cultural and social significance of artefacts from the late 20th century.

Greenham Common poster 1982

Greenham Common poster 1982

My presentation was sandwiched between a rounding up of the first phase of Collecting Cultures and an announcement of a new round being open for applications.  Delegates were keen to know how our project had been conceived and developed.  One questioner from the floor was disappointed that he had not seen innovation in collecting.  This was puzzling for us, as we feel that we have been able to think anew about this, not least in the way we consulted in the galleries and via our blog on what visitors would like us to collect.  However, we also were clear that responsible collecting must be linked to an overall policy and we did not see this programme as being designed to ‘break the mould’ of that document.  When collecting, curators must always have an eye on the past as well as the future.

My speaking duties out of the way, I was able to sample the main themes properly which included a session on how different parts of the UK are planning to commemorate the First World War.  In Ireland the anniversaries will include the Easter Rising and the arrival of the Black and Tans.  There will definitely be a challenge in terms of therapeutic truth and reconciliation here.  I also attended a session that looked at what the future museums profession might look like.  All the panellists felt that the term ‘profession’ might not be needed and that we would be looking at a far wider range of skills.  The curators of the future would be truly international, very possibly trained in China, highly mobile with a working life consisting entirely of fixed term contracts.

MA Conference is always a good time to renew museum acquaintances, share the museum gossip and gather free stationery from the exhibition stands.  At an early evening reception I was told by one company that their prize of a mini ipad was definitely worth going for.  If I could just think of a suitable icon for my museum, the odds were strong for me to win it.  In the event, I went out for a meal instead.  The Conference also offers great opportunities to visit sites out of normal hours.  I managed to fit in a breakfast viewing of the powerful exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery of work by photojournalist, Tim Hetherton.  “You Never See Them Like This” was a remarkable set of images taken whilst he was lived alongside American soldiers stationed in the Korengal valley in Afghanistan.  Captured asleep, the soldiers looked like small, vulnerable boys, instantly recognisable to their mothers.  Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya in 2011.