Chalk or Cheese? Winner announced!

The votes are in, the people have spoken and the wall hanging chosen for display in the new Museum of English Rural Life is…Kent!

Kent single

Over the past month we asked you to vote between our Kent and Cheshire wall hangings, two of a series of seven made by the artist Michael O’Connell for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The campaign culminated in our Museums at Night event, Chalk or Cheese?, where visitors enjoyed each region’s beer and cheese, advocates for both hangings battled it out in a political hustings and everyone had to chance to participate in a secret ballot.

DSC_0078

The end-vote was incredibly close; in the end, Kent only won by six votes.

If you’re wondering why the choice is only between two wall hangings, the reasons are actually quite simple (the others depict Rutlandshire, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire and The Fens).

Firstly, we have never had the space or right conditions to display any of these hangings before, so they’ve lain in our Object Store for decades. The cost of conserving each hanging for public display was significant and involved considerable work on the part of qualified conservator Kate Gill. We could not have done this without the funding the Heritage Lottery Fund and the University provided. She removed creases in the fabric, repaired damage, and cleaned and reshaped each of them ready for display.

Kate Gill conserving the wall hangings.

Kate Gill conserving the wall hangings.

It’s actually quite lucky that the wall hangings have not been on display in so long, as it means their colours are fresh and vibrant. To keep the colours that way we have to avoid exposing them to too much light, so each wall hanging will only be displayed for five years at a time. One wall hanging will be fully displayed while the other will be rolled and stored at the back of the case, ready to be swapped around in five year’s time.

This of course means that the Cheshire wall hanging will go on display in 2021. We’d love to be able to display them all at the same time, but at a mammoth 7 x 3.5 metres each, we simply cannot afford to case them all (and we don’t have the space!). The case we have bought is bespoke, and has been carefully designed specifically for our wall hangings.

An artist's impression of what the new gallery may look like.

An artist’s impression of what the new gallery may look like.

Of course, conservation and environmental factors were less of a concern to our predecessors when they first acquired the hangings back in 1952. They took them immediately to an agricultural show and hung them in the back of a tent in the middle of a field. How times (and costs) have changed!

Thank you to everyone who voted in this campaign, and we look forward to inviting you to see the wall hanging on display this October!

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.

6 5

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.

IMG_9504

 

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…

IMG_9161

 

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.

Reminscance-therapy

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!

#DisabilityStories – Labelling visual impairment

How do you write a label in under 50 words on a basket made by an anonymous, visually impaired basket-maker without appearing patronising and tokenistic?

This basket was made at the Royal School for the Blind.

This basket was made at the Royal School for the Blind.

This question conveniently coincides with this week’s #CultureThemes topic of #DisabilityStories. The staff here at MERL are busily writing labels for our new galleries, covering overarching topics and themes, object groups, highlight objects and individual people.

Disability is both a hidden and common theme in the countryside depending on how you view rural history, literature and art. Historically the countryside can be viewed as a healthy place, full of people with ruddy complexions who exercise their bodies daily and eat the fat of the land. It is where we sent the wounded from the World Wars to recuperate, and it is a place we ‘escape to’ to get some fresh air.

It is also a place of grinding poverty, where starvation was only two bad harvests away and malnutrition was a fact of life. Farming was, and is, a place of hard toil where constant labour caused early arthritis and exposure to the elements and isolation from medical care caused a world of illness.

And this is where the nub of representing people with disabilities comes. We have a multitude of material to draw on to explore the lives of those whose disability was caused by accident and ill-health. To discuss disability only in terms of health, however, is tokenistic and it is often seen as demeaning to have a person’s significance in a story revolve around their disability alone. It ignores the fact that many people do not see their disabilities as disabling, but simply a part of who they are. People with disabilities were a fact of life in rural England for centuries and still are, and a disability was often the norm rather than the exception. Fields still had to be tilled, baskets made and animals fed whatever someone’s physical or mental condition.

The basket will be displayed in a case in a section named 'Craftspeople at Work'.

The basket will be displayed in a case in a section named ‘Craftspeople at Work’.

We had all of these discussions and more when trying to write a label for a basket made at the London School for the Blind in the early- to mid-twentieth century. It is well-made and is meant for feeding horses or other animals. The basket will be located in a gallery focusing on our different views and perceptions of the English countryside, and more specifically will be located in the basketry section under a theme called Craftspeople at Work. The label we ended up with is this:

This basket was used for feeding horses and was made at the Royal School for the Blind in the early twentieth century. Craftspeople rely heavily on their sense of touch to determine the correct textures, shapes and form of their work.

We made the decision not to focus on how basketry has traditionally been seen as a blind craft, nor how blind people in institutions such as the Royal School for the Blind were encouraged to make baskets as a source of income (as ‘honest work’), or how basketry is still used as a therapeutic process for people today who are newly blinded. One reason for this is the 50-word limit of our Object Highlight labels, but we also didn’t want to make the fact that a blind person could make a perfectly good basket the main point – the visitor should be able to pick this up by themselves from the information we’ve given them. Equally, we focused on ‘Craftspeople’ rather than ‘Blind people’ in the second sentence, as it is the craftsmanship that defines this object rather than the maker’s disability. Hopefully in this way we have avoided the common mistake of presenting someone ‘overcoming’ something despite their ‘disability’ and instead bring attention to the fact that basketry utilises the sense of touch more than the sense of sight.

What do you think of this label? Should we have made a lengthier label discussing these issues? Is it wrong to discuss disability in the countryside only through the lens of modern health?

Focus on Collections: Dragons

To celebrate St George’s Day we decided to delve into the object collection for dragons.

IMG_8820Dragons are normally something you would keep well away from Museum stores. Messy eaters, far too large and prone to setting things on fire, they are possibly the least ideal animal to have in a storehouse full of dry baskets, wooden tools and straw samples.

IMG_8822

And yet, some curator long ago saw fit to let at least a few dragons in. Our first three are fairly manageable, being altogether about ten centimetres long, made of corn and being – on closer inspection – actually quite cute. Modelled on the fierce beasts of mythology, these corn dolly dragons made by Doris Johnson appear to be aquatic rather than airborne, with only two legs, a spiral tail and no real wings to speak of.

IMG_8834

Our next dragons are similarly flammable but, since they were made in 1787, have managed to survive. They are known as Housen, and are pieces of decoration meant to be attached to a horse’s collar. They both depict a pair of dragons in the centre, mouths set against a globe. The style of both pieces is very reminiscent of Nordic designs, and yet these two pieces were collected from Twyford. Their origin is obscure, but they may have developed from the guard attached to the front of the saddle to protect the groins of a knight in armour, which at least gives them a flavour of St George.

The lack of wings, however, make us wonder if these even do depict dragons. Are they in fact heavily stylised lions?

IMG_8841

Research post: X marks the spot

tumblr_nht7trXTes1tj5ey1o1_1280

We’ve all been very busy researching nine new galleries for the Our Country Lives redevelopment, covering everything from wagon construction to rural fashion. What caught our eye recently, however, was a one-way, horse-drawn Butterfly plough.

While delving into our accession files for its measurements we found this interesting little map tucked into a sheaf of correspondence (below). It depicts a working farm in Polventon, Cornwall where our plough came from. It shows a house, barn, stables, a waggon and cart hovel, a ‘new building’ and a chapel. It also has some queries – such as one building labelled ‘bullock house? Pigs?’. I doubt we’ll ever know which.

tumblr_nht7trXTes1tj5ey1o3_500

The correspondence also revealed that the farmer used this horse-drawn plough to fill in the gaps which his tractor-drawn plough could not reach, such as by the hedges, showing the perseverance of old technology where practical. The curator has marked two X’s on the map where two ploughs were found in hedges (including the one in our collection). Not exactly buried treasure to most people, but valuable to us nonetheless.

tumblr_nht7trXTes1tj5ey1o6_1280

What is also particularly interesting for us is the inclusion of a floor-plan of the farmhouse (below), labeling familiar objects in our collection such as settles. Considering our plans for the redeveloped galleries include a focus on ‘Hearth and Home’, exploring both the romanticised view of the cottage and the too-often grim reality, these plans may well shape our interpretation and object layout.

tumblr_nht7trXTes1tj5ey1o2_1280 (1)

The farmhouse still exists in the exact same shape, although the ‘waggon hovel’ has since been converted into a garage. No longer used as part of a farm, you can rent out the house for a self-catering holiday, which is itself an interesting comment on the changes in farming and rural real estate over the past fifty years.

Hopefully we’ll have more interesting things crop up as we research over the next few weeks!

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.

output_GW22Lq

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.

DSC_0383

 

What have we been up to? An Our Country Lives update

This gallery contains 9 photos.

A common reaction from people when we tell them that our galleries are closed is ‘Does that mean you’re all on holiday?’ Well, we’ve actually been intensely busy behind the scenes since November creating the new MERL! Here’s a round-up of some of the things we’ve been doing:   1. While the galleries have been closed, […]

The return of King Alfred

P DX558_7

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!

folkartbanner

 

 

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).