Historic World Objects: research and beyond

Although we’ve been pretty quiet on the blog post front, plenty has been going on in the World Cultures part of the project since last autumn. Adam and I have been busy researching the 600 objects that were chosen and re-photographed for inclusion in Reading Museum’s new online catalogue. This is quite a varied process as there is a lot of variety in the amount of information already available about the objects. Some records might tell you who collected the object, when, from where, what it is, and what it was used for. Others are less informative; my personal favourite is the record that simply states ‘This is a mat’. As ever in documentation and research, you are rather at the mercy of whatever information was originally collected about an object at the time it was donated to the Museum! This isn’t to say that the sparser records are lost causes – if anything, they’re the most satisfying to research, for those ‘breakthrough’ moments when you make a connection or identification.

Mozambique door rubbing

A rubbing of a door carving from a hut in Mozambique, sent to the Board of Study for the Preparation of Missionaries as a teaching tool, researched during a recent consultancy visit.

To date we’ve researched around 475 objects, which puts us just over three-quarters of the way to meeting our target. Unfortunately this does mean that we’re now getting to all the trickier objects that, earlier on in the process, we put aside for later! The research process is generally pretty fun though – especially as I seem to have the capacity to become interested in just about anything. As just a small sample, we’ve researched: traditional Burmese puppet theatre, Tunisian ceramics, Zulu bead-work, West African musical instruments, Northwest Coast Native American basketry, Scandinavian birch bark shoes, Portuguese ox yokes and Venezuelan devil masks. Keep an eye out for announcements about the launch of the online catalogue, if you’d like to see the rest of the 600 objects!

Historic World Objects consultancy

Investigating an object described as a ‘Congolese executioner’s sword’ during consultant Chris Wingfield’s visit.

The other main focus of activity over the past few months has been planning the Historic World Object consultancy. We’ve invited six ethnographic specialists to visit the collection and offer advice on research, conservation, and the potential of the collection for future engagement projects. These will take place between now and the end of April, but the first three consultants, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, and Chris Wingfield have visited over the past few weeks. I will write a blog post about the outcome of all the visits closer to the end of the project. In the meantime you should hear soon from one of the interns working on the project, Farah Qureshi, who helped out with one of the consultancy days, about her experience of working on this part of the project.

Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer


The Chronicle Collection – The1960s

Since my last update at Christmas, my research on the Chronicle Collection owned by Reading Museum has continued with the help of Project Intern, Farah Qureshi. I have worked systematically and chronologically through the collection beginning with photographs taken in the 1930s for the Berkshire Chronicle newspaper before moving on to the 1940s and 1950s.

In nearing completion of the research stage for the photographs selected for the online resource, I am now researching photographs from the 1960s, the final decade for this strand of the project.

‘The Sixties’ denotes a time of revolution in social norms and a relaxation of social taboos. It has become a period synonymous with the new, radical, and rebellious cultural and political movements and trends of the time. It is also an era I find of particular interest, so I have chosen a few of my favourite photographs from this period to share.

The first is that of ‘Screaming’ Lord Sutch at 20 years of age, performing at the Majestic Ballroom on Caversham Road in Reading at an event aimed at teenagers. Mr David Apps, the Majestic manager expressed his surprise at the popularity of Screaming Lord Sutch with the audience.  The singer was backed on stage by his band, The Savages. The Berkshire Chronicle described Lord Sutch as wearing “his hair about 18 inches long” and always appearing “in odd clothes like an old tattered loin cloth or some Eskimo outfit”. Sutch gained notoriety for his horror-themed stage show, dressing as Jack the Ripper, pre-dating the stage antics of the likes of Alice Cooper. During Sutch’s music career he worked with Keith Moon of the Who, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Ritchie Blackmore who would later become a guitarist in Deep Purple and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. He later forced a career in politics having founded The Official Monster Raving Loony Party in 1983, a registered UK political party famed for its deliberately bizarre policies aimed at satirising British politics. Sutch sadly suffered from manic depression and committed suicide in 1999.

1960s chronicle

The second is American ‘Ban the Bomb’ marchers on Wokingham Road in Reading. The marchers, facing hardship and possible loss of freedom trooped into Reading after beginning their walk in San Francisco in California 6 months previously. Their route took them across America to New York where they were then flown to England. The walk was organised by the American Committee for Non-violent Action, in an effort to “make people in the West and the East see the follies of nuclear armaments”. Upon arrival in Reading they were joined by Reading Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Reading University Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They were applauded by a 200 strong crowd of local people upon reaching the Town Hall on Blagrave Street. The marchers’ next stop was France followed by Belgium, Western and Eastern Germany as well as Poland before their final destination of Moscow in Russia.

1960s chronicle2


Sophie Fitzpatrick

Reading Connections Project Officer


Reading Connections in the Lake District

Walter Lloyd and Project Co-Ordinator Sarah Thomas getting to grips with some of the tools.

Walter Lloyd and Project Co-Ordinator Sarah Thomas getting to grips with some of the tools.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Lake District for a couple of days to help out on a project called Walter’s Tools, which has been funded by the HLF’s ‘Sharing Heritage’ scheme and led by The Woodmanship Trust. Walter Lloyd is a fascinating 89-year old who has been (and still is to a certain extent), amongst other things, a bow-top caravan builder, charcoal burner and fell-pony breeder. He has a barn piled from floor to roof with all sorts of agricultural equipment, including a wide selection of hand tools from a variety of rural trades and crafts.

The Walter’s Tools project aims, with the help of a team of volunteers, to catalogue and restore these hand tools to create a ‘tool library’ for use by craftspeople and educational organisations – basically, the tools can be borrowed and, most importantly, used! It’s a fantastic idea! I really do love working at MERL but it can be sad knowing that the tools in our collection have reached the end of their functional lives – not because they’re no longer in a suitable condition but because that’s what museums do – so it’s great to know that there’s a project happening which runs counter to that vein. The tool library will be housed at Stott Park Bobbin Mill near Newby Bridge in Cumbria from 2015.

By Monday afternoon the sun was shining and the shelter was finally up.

By Monday afternoon the sun was shining and the shelter was finally up.

Having spent the last year at MERL working on the craft strand of Reading Connections, which has been all about cataloguing craft collections and making connections with craftspeople, I was really keen to get involved in Walter’s Tools and to share some of my craft cataloguing experience. It was quite a challenge in some ways, as a collection like this doesn’t need the same sort of cataloguing as a museum collection. Working with Sarah Thomas, the Project Co-ordinator, we assessed the needs of the cataloguing and devised a cataloguing workflow to take into account what needs recording, at what stage in the process, and how best to do it. The much more exciting aspect of the project – the restoration of the tools – is yet to come. A local blacksmith and a local handlemaker will be working on site with volunteers to restore and refurbish the tools into a working condition. In some cases this means a good scrub with wire wool, in others it’s a case of sharpening or re-handling.

By Tuesday afternoon we'd started sorting through some of the tools and giving them provisional numbers.

By Tuesday afternoon we’d started sorting through some of the tools and giving them provisional numbers.

The project is only just getting underway, so a lot of the time during my visit was spent preparing the site – clearing rubble, putting up a shelter, and shovelling huge piles of woodchip. I had a wonderful time! The weather was beautiful and it was great to be out of the office and doing something active on a Monday and Tuesday! We also started to do fish out the tools from the piles in the barn, put them into crates and conduct an initial assessment as to whether they were suitable for inclusion.  We managed to give 200 tools provisional numbers by the time I left on Tuesday afternoon.

There must have been over one hundred billhooks in Walter's collection.

There must have been over one hundred billhooks in Walter’s collection.

There’s a lot to do and I think Sarah’s got her hands full running the project, but I’m very envious! I really hope I can go up again in a couple of months’ time and do some more volunteering – perhaps a weekend scrubbing billhooks?


Greta Bertram

Project Officer

Press release: Arts Council funding brings Reading museums closer to the community

We are delighted that the Museum of English Rural Life and Reading Museum will be able to build on the partnership we have developed during the Reading Connections project as a result of further Arts Council funding which has been announced today. For more details, read the press release issued by the museums today.

Reading Museum outreach

Arts Council funding brings Reading museums closer to the community

5th March, 2014

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) and Reading Museum have been awarded £129,150 to collaborate on ‘Reading Engaged’, a new joint project aimed at strengthening engagement with local communities.

MERL, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, has received the award as part the latest round of Arts Council England’s Strategic support fund, announced today.  57 organisations will receive a total of £5,715,338 through the Renaissance Strategic support fund, which aims to support excellence, and the potential for excellence, in a wide range of museums across England.

Over the past year the two museums have worked together to reinforce to the local community the contribution Reading and its citizens made during the First World War. This award strengthens that partnership and sees the museums develop closer ties with community groups through displays, partnerships and events.

New display cases in Reading Museum’s ‘Reading: People and Place’ gallery will allow both museums to experiment with innovative community-generated or volunteer-developed exhibitions. MERL will use these displays to test ideas and new approaches to content creation and engagement for ‘Our Country Lives’ – MERL’s redisplay project.

MERL community eventThe funding will also support audience research that will help both museums develop new programmes that reflect the communities they serve.   Other joint activities will include working together on new merchandise for their Museum shops and on staff and volunteer training.

Kate Arnold-Forster, Director of MERL, said: “The Museum of English Rural Life is delighted to have been given this opportunity to strengthen our strategic partnership with Reading Museum. We are confident that this project will mean that people living in Reading will be able to experience more and better opportunities to enjoy what our museums have to offer. We also want to share what we learn through this project with other museums to help show them the benefits of partnership working.”

Cllr Paul Gittings, Lead Member for Culture and Sport at Reading Borough Council, said ”It is fantastic that the University and Council’s museums are working so closely together for the benefit of all Reading’s communities. This further funding success builds upon the foundations of their joint work over the last 12 months and will provide more exciting opportunities for local people to engage with the significant museum collections we have here in Reading”.


For further information, images and interviews, please contact:

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at Museum of English Rural Life on 0118 378 8660.

Notes for editors:

The Arts Council announcement and further details can be found on their website

Reading at War: the exhibition progresses

One of Reading Museum’s most significant outcomes from this project will be the Reading at War exhibition, due to open on 5 April 2014. Planning for our exhibitions can start two years in advance or even more, but by this stage the pressure is increasing as opening day approaches.

We’ve met our text deadline and sourced the images for the interpretation panels which were sent to our designer in early January. The logo (which you can see here and will be used in all the publicity, such as private view invitations and event flyers) has been created and we’re working hard with the University’s Film and Theatre Dept developing other content including the Second World War images and the Huntley & Palmers war biscuits ‘film’.

Reading at War exhibition logo

There is still a lot more to do: the fascinating facts, the interactives, the resource centre; taking out the current exhibition and repainting the gallery; not to mention finalising the selection of objects, working out an exciting way to display medals and completing loan arrangements. Loans for this exhibition include ‘Bobbie’, a stuffed dog from The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum in Salisbury which houses the collections of the Royal Berkshire Regiment (http://www.thewardrobe.org.uk).


Bobbie was the mascot of the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot, who survived the Battle of Maiwand (a disastrous defeat for British and Indian forces towards the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880). He joined the regiment’s retreat to Kandahar, though wounded, and was presented to HM Queen Victoria at Osborne House in June 1881 alongside the human survivors! In 1882 while on a march with the regiment he was run over by a cab carrying a wedding party and one of the soldiers present had to be restrained from laying into the cabbie with his rifle butt. Bobbie was stuffed and preserved in a case with an Afghan campaign medal round his neck. (The photo, from the Reading Chronicle Collection, shows him being admired by guests at a ball in Brock Barracks on Oxford Road in 1949.)


Although the Reading at War exhibition marks the centenary of the First World War’s outbreak, it will explore how war throughout history has shaped Reading’s character – for example the Battle of Maiwand is commemorated by the Lion in the Forbury Gardens, a symbol of Reading for many. We hope the exhibition will be a focal point for the town to reflect on the impact of war.

Reading at War will run until Sunday 14 September 2014 and will be complemented by a full programme of events. Look at the exhibition entry on the Reading Museum website http://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/events/details/429/ for more information.


Angela Houghton (Collection Systems Curator) and the Reading Museum Exhibitions Department.

Images courtesy of Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)