MERL Village Fete: MERL Toddlers take the biscuit!

This is the first of a series of posts from the Village Fete team on the run-up to this year’s event, by Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer.

Preparations for the 2014 MERL Village Fete are well underway and it’s exciting to be able to start sharing some of the new features of the event, which will focus on food this year!

Last Friday, the Village Fete team hijacked the regular Friday Toddler Time session to launch the ‘MERL Biscuit Bake-off’ which will be judged at the Fete on May 31st.  One of Reading’s famous 3Bs, biscuits are part of the town’s – and MERL’s – heritage. Our beautiful Victorian building is the former family home of the Palmer family of Huntley & Palmer’s, and we hold their archive in the University’s Special Collections. Introducing a ‘Biscuit Bake-off’ competition to the Fete seems the perfect way to encourage the people of Reading to get baking biscuits!

 MERL toddlers take the biscuit group

Regular Toddler Time attendees were invited to bring in their favourite homemade biscuits to be tasted by long-term MERL supporter and descendant of the Palmer family, Andrew Palmer and his wife Davina. Despite the chaos as families arrived armed with plates of biscuits, Andrew and Davina had a great time trying out everyone’s delicious offerings!

Andrew Palmer & Leo

Andrew Palmer trying Anzac biscuits baked by Leo

Everyone was also very interested to try the biscuits baked by Deiniol Pritchard, a Food Science student at the University. These were inspired by a recipe for ‘University Rusks’ from the records of ‘Huntley & Palmers’.

rusks3

Deiniol with his biscuits, the Huntley & Palmer recipe for University Rusks and an image from the archive of Tea Rusks.

After a photo session (look out for pictures in the local press!) and the usual sing-along on the carpet, the toddlers enjoyed the rest of the session decorating biscuits in the Studio, where they were joined not only by the Palmers, but also by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, who happened to be at the Museum for a meeting, and called in to investigate the commotion!

VC & toddler 1

The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Sir David Bell, joined in the biscuit-decorating activity

Everyone is welcome to enter the ‘Biscuit Bake-off’ at the Fete. There will be ‘traditional’ and ‘freestyle’ categories, and several age groups – from Under 5s to adults! Just bring your favourite homemade biscuits to the event on the day. You can find details of how to enter on our website.

In the meantime, we’re going to be posting a different biscuit recipe on the blog each week, so watch this space for inspiration and start practising!

 

 

 

Student Spotlight #2: Man Traps

Henrik Yau is a second year Archaeology student at the University of Reading, who chose to research our Man Traps because they caught his eye, because they looked dangerous and he had no prior knowledge of them.

I’ve always loved going to museums. Looking at vast collection of objects always excited me as a child, which probably stemmed from me collecting Pokémon cards (don’t judge, everyone did it), so when asked to go on a placement I immediately thought of museums. I took my placement at MERL because of my aspiration of working in a museum, and being allowed behind the scenes and actually handling museum objects is somewhat of a privilege, and seeing how a museum actually operates was insightful. I was also surprised to find English rural life isn’t just all about tractors and farming, and for my research it was Man traps that caught my eye.

An depiction of a humane man-trap in use (MERL 68/95)

An depiction of a humane man-trap in use (MERL 68/95)

The harsh conditions of rural districts drove men to poaching in order to feed their families as a means of survival. Those forced to poach may have lost their jobs as game keepers, farmers or travelling gypsies. The small populated, dense woodland fields and large estates were a haven for these illegal activities and became a poacher’s paradise.

Before the Norman invasion of 1066 anyone with permission to set foot on land could freely hunt, until William the Conqueror decreed he would claim vast acres of land to be set up as private preserves. Up until the Game Act of 1671 poachers had thought all game belonged to no one until caught. However, under the Game Act of 1671, landowners, their eldest sons or tenant farmers who  became the only ones allowed to take game from the land. Because of this poaching became increasingly on the rise as peasants needed a way to feed their families and themselves, resulting in it becoming a capital offence under the 1723 Waltham Black Act. However, the law still didn’t deter poachers so Parliament made the trade of game entirely illegal in 1755.

An inhumane man-trap (59/155)

An inhumane man-trap (MERL 59/155)

Eventually poachers had become so frequent and the numbers of groups so great that local law enforcement was unable to attend every case of poaching. Throughout the 19th century there had been many cases of game keepers being killed and many seriously injured when battling violent poachers. While employing more game keepers was too expensive, estate owners began to employ the use of man traps which came to be known as ‘thigh crackers and body squeezers’.  Man traps like the one pictured above are thought to have first circulated around England by 1770, and placed in plain sight to act as a deterrent. These initial traps would operate with two opposite weight-bearing springs and a pressure pad in the middle which, when stepped on, the razor sharp teeth attached to the jaws of the trap would close shut and catch any unsuspecting poacher. However, in May 1827 these non-humane man traps were outlawed.

A humane man-trap (64/24)

A humane man-trap (MERL 64/24), measuring in mm: 530×655 (l x w)

In 1830, since there was still a high demand for traps, humane man traps were produced for estate/landowners. Humane man-traps like the one pictured above, and currently on display in the Museum’s collection of traps,  was acquired in 1964 from an unknown donor. These traps would be placed in a hole dug in the ground in the middle of a used pathway, and covered up by placing leaves and grass on top. Humane traps such as this work by a pressure pad in the centre of the trap which had four prongs extending outwards in a north, east, south and west direction to keep the two barrels at the top of the trap and the curved flanges underneath the barrels firmly down in place. When an unsuspecting poacher disturbs the pressure pad it causes the prongs to be displaced and the flanges to abruptly surge up, forcing the two barrels to shut tightly on the leg of the poacher. The chain is used to lock the trap to a tree or another object. Unlike the inhumane man traps, anyone stepping on these traps could not easily free themselves as they were fitted with locks which could only be opened by gamekeepers who possessed the only key. Humane man traps such as this were manufactured by iron founder companies such as William Bullock & Co and Archibald Kendrick & Co in the West Midlands in towns such as Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.

Further Reading

Christy, M. 1902-1903. Man traps and spring guns. Outing, 41: 729-734.

Haddon-Riddoch, S. 2006. Rural reflection: a brief history of traps, trap makers and game keeping in Britain. Glendaruel: Argyll Publishing.

Jones, D.S.D.2000. A game keeping Miscellany. No place publication: No publisher.

Lovergrove, R. 2007. Silent field. The decline of a nation’s wildlife. Oxford: Oxford university press

Munsche, P.B. 1983. Pursuing Wild Symbols of Privilege: Munsche’s Gentlemen and Poachers: The English Game Laws 1671-1831. American bar foundation research journal, 8 (2): 481-489.

Museum of English Rural Life. 2014. Man traps. [Online] Available at: http://www.reading.ac.uk/adlib/Details/collect/4079 [Accessed 28th February 2014].

Watson, J. 1974. Poachers, and poaching. Wakefield: Ep Publishing LTD.

 

 

 

 

Focus on Collections #4: Tools & Trade History Society Library

written by Tony Waldis, the Librarian of the Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) Library, a special collection kept at MERL for use by visitors and readers. This collection reflects the encompassing knowledge of rural craft and industry kept at MERL, and which we hope to continue to pass down through our displays, outreach and events after our redevelopment.

Among the specialist subject collections at MERL is the library of The Tools and Trades History Society, with over 1,100 books, catalogues, videos and pamphlets.

P FW PH1/54/11/18/3 - A welder at work.

P FW PH1/54/11/18/3 – A welder at work.

It is not just about ‘old tools’; the library also has Young Farmers’ Club Booklets and English Industries of the Middle Ages too. There are numerous trade catalogues that would help to identify most hand tools you are likely to come across, but there is also a wealth of information on the tradesmen of the past and the conditions they worked and lived in. Spare a thought, for instance, for the 18th-century apprentice tied to his master for seven years, during which he could not, marry, leave his master, play at cards, dice or other unlawful games, haunt taverns or play-houses, or absent himself from his master’s service day or night. Worse still, the Xbox and iPad had yet to be invented.

A wide variety of trades and crafts are covered by the collection, from the village blacksmith (who usually doubled as the dentist too because he had the strongest grip for pulling teeth) to the local hat maker. Did you know that the chemicals used in hat making could literally send the workers insane? Hence the saying ‘as mad as a hatter’.

Come along to the MERL Reading Room and see what strange facts you can find in the TATHS collection; a catalogue of material is available online on the TATHS website. There are recipes for cleaning and polishing everything under the sun and for making everything from puddings to poisons. Just don’t mix them up!

Picture(s) of the month #8: Eric Guy’s working horses

I noticed earlier this month that the Royal Mail has just issued a Working Horses stamp set featuring “six contemporary photographs of Working Horses performing therapeutic, ceremonial, environmental, draught and police duties” They’re beautiful stamps which immediately brought to mind the stunning photographs by Eric Guy in the MERL collections.

Eric Guy (1892-1966) was a commercial photographer based in Basingstoke and later in Reading. The MERL collection consists of 2000 glass negatives and some original prints, showing agriculture in central southern England from the 1920s to 50s. Our Honorary Fellow, Dr Jonathan Brown, has written a book about his work – ‘The Rural World of Eric Guy (Old Pond Publishing, 2008) so perhaps I should ask him to blog about this collection in more detail at some point!

Caroline Benson, MERL Photographic Assistant, has selected her favourite images of working horses from the Eric Guy collection.

P DX289 PH1_763

Here horses are being used to transport felled trees. It is interesting to see that forestry is still included in the roles of contemporary working horses.

 

P DX289 PH3_4409

 

P DX289 PH3_4459

 

P DX289 PH3_4669

 

Click here for further details of the Eric Guy Collection and to explore our online catalogue.

by Alison Hilton, MERL Marketing Officer

Psychology students’ research project: children’s word recognition in museums

Over the Autumn Term we had the pleasure of hosting a psychology research project at the Museum of English Rural Life for two University of Reading undergraduates, Alex Tait and Laura Postlethwaite. Alex and Laura used a selection of objects from the Museum’s collection to explore how children learn new words in a museum setting. In this guest post, they explain their research…

There have been many studies exploring how children use a museum, including many looking into a parent and children’s interaction in a museum. This research is useful as the findings can be used by the museum itself to improve their services – such as through information packs or museum layout – so that their collections can become more effective for children.

When we were planning our third year project, there was an option to carry out a project at MERL – no specific outline was set as to what would be carried out and so we had an initial meeting with a few of the staff from the museum, to come up with an idea that would incorporate both our requirements for our project, but also one that would benefit the museum in some way. After much discussion and working out what was achievable for us, we came up with a project looking at how children learn names of novel objects, and whether words and/or pictures would aid this learning or not. This links to our studies about a child’s word learning and will also benefit the museum and help their plans for their redevelopment. Hopefully, the museum will be able to use our findings to develop useful resources for children to use when visiting the museum.

Following the generation of this idea, we came up with a standardised procedure that we could use to test a child’s word learning. We then chose 10 novel objects that we could teach a child the names of – we had to ensure that the children would not know the names of these objects prior to this study. These were then placed in a case in the museum (seen in the picture) for use during the research. Information cards containing words and/or pictures of these objects were then prepared and then the research could start!

 

Psychology objects

We carried out a pilot study in the museum on Apple Day, and started our actual research after a few alterations in October half term so that we could carry out the research on children of our target age as they visited. Our next steps are to collate all of the data we collected over the week in the museum and see if we found any significant results.

Hopefully our findings will be useful and able to inform the museum on how to usefully interpret their collections for this age of audience during their potential redevelopment next year! We look forward to sharing our results in due course.

 

Alex Tait and Laura Postlethwaite

Weekly What’s On: 13th to 20th January ’14

magic carpetToddler time
Friday 17th January, 10-11am,
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. 

 

 

 

Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.

 

 

Peril-and-Adventure-William-St-Clair-collection-768x1024Book jackets in the University of Reading Special Collections
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
This display celebrates the wide variety of beautiful book jackets within our collections, through a selection of our most colourful favourites!  Read more on the Special Collections blog

 

 

 

And a little more notice for the first in our new seminar series on intangible heritage, Untouchable England…

 

Somerset 2013MERL Seminar: Somerset Morris: West Country Friendly Society stave dancers
Tuesday 21st January, 1pm
Using antique Friendly Society stave heads, Somerset Morris has performed stave dancing across England and further afield for over 30 years. Hear about the team’s passion for this traditional and localised dance form.

Followed by a ‘pop-up’ display of MERL’s Friendly Society pole heads (staves) in the mezzanine store.

 

 

‘Life on canals’: a Takeover Day exhibition

This gallery contains 19 photos.

On Friday 22nd November, the Museum of English Rural Life worked with the Institute of Education and took part in Kids in Museums’ Takeover Day. Throughout the day we welcomed Year 5 and 6 students from Geoffrey Field Junior School, Reading, and invited them to explore artefacts in the collections that relate to canal life […]

Pictures of the month #6 – Canal life

Photographic Assistant, Caroline Benson has resisted the temptation to select a festive image this month, instead sharing images she discovered whilst preparing materials for an education session last month…

The photographs this month are from a collection depicting canals & canal life. The two I have chosen were amongst a selection used by Philippa Heath, our Public Programmes Manager, in a school workshop held last month. The primary school children visited MERL as part of  Takeover Day and used pictures from our collection to create mini exhibitions (see an online version here) about life on the canals.

Unfortunately we don’t know the names of the people nor the location of the canal in these particular pictures but the date is August 1965.

The collection includes a variety of activities but here we have crocheting and painting.

Crochet on the canal - P DX1096_39

Crochet on the canal

 

 

 

Painting on the canal

Painting on the canal

 

 

Weekly What’s On – 25th Nov to Dec 1st

What’s on at MERL this week?

 

Rural reads book club
Thursday 28th November, 5.30-7pm
Free. (£1.50 for tea & cake)
Drop in and join this informal group discussing books on a rural theme. This month the book we’ll be talking about is Trespass by Rose Tremain. As there is no meeting in December, we have already selected Lorna Doone, by R.D.Blackmore as the topic of our first meeting in 2014, on January 30th.

For details visit the Rural Reads page on our website

 

 

magic carpetToddler time
Friday 29th November, 10-11am£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities. This week we’ll be using salt dough models using butter stamps and moulds based on items you can see in the Museum.

 

 

 

HP christmas*New* Huntley & Palmers: a Christmas selection
25 Nov 2013- 5 Jan, 2014
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
This seasonal display in the Staircase hall of the Palmers’ former family home, shows off some of the visual delights in the University’s extensive archive of local biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers

 

 

 

Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.

 

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.