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This project is a partnership between the British Museum, the BBC and UK Museums, which aims to tell 'A History of the World' through man-made objects. The project will take the form of a 100-part British Museum series 'A History of the World in 100 objects' on Radio 4, starting on 18 January. There will be a dedicated A History of the World BBC website, featuring the British Museum objects, a 13 part TV series on CBBC and regional BBC programmes featuring objects chosen by Museums across the UK.

BBC Berkshire and museums across the county have chosen 10 objects to tell a history of Berkshire and its place in the world. The list of 10 objects can be seen on the BBC Berkshire website and all the objects are on display at the relevant museums.

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'A History of the World' at MERL

Unlike many of the treasures that the BM will draw upon, the artefacts chosen by the MERL curators fall into the category of ‘small things forgotten’. They are ordinary possessions and day-to-day artefacts that have surprisingly far-reaching stories behind them.


Dodder CounterThe Dodder Counter
The first of these is a dodder counter as used in the early twentieth century by staff at Suttons Seeds, a large company once based in Reading. The object itself is essentially a desktop-based, hand-operated conveyor belt on which the company’s products were checked for purity. This painstaking and eye-straining work aimed to estimate the number of invasive weeds, including dodder and other more familiar forms like docks and nettles, which appeared in a given sample of flower, vegetable or grass seeds. Although seemingly mundane, such a thing says important things about the hard-working people who enabled local companies like Suttons able to succeed in a global market. It places value on the lives of the many individuals who worked at Suttons, a group that includes some of the longest-standing volunteers here at MERL.

The dodder counter was selected from the Museum’s extensive reserve collections and will be on display in MERL for the duration of the History of the World project (January to December 2010), where it will sit alongside a handful of other Suttons material. During this time it is also set to make a brief appearance at Reading Museum for a day devoted to 'A History of the World', to be held on 15 February. For the remainder of 2010 it will be on public display at MERL.

Those coming to see it may be interested to know that MERL also houses the wider archives of Suttons Seeds. If you want to find out more about this fascinating local firm and its international reach you are welcome to make use of the reading room and research facilities available.


George LaileyThe Lailey Lathe
The second object we have chosen is a pole lathe that belonged to the late George Lailey, a Bucklebury man said to have been England’s last traditional bowl turner. The MERL collections contain many Lailey items. Together these artefacts tell the story of an ordinary Berkshire man whose work came to have a profound impact on early twentieth century craft. Wooden bowls were the standard eating vessel across Europe from about 500AD to 1600AD. When Lailey passed away the rich international scope of this ancient technology died with him. With a replica of his lathe one contemporary artisan, Robin Wood, has helped to revive Lailey’s techniques, assisting in the reintroduction of bowl turning to numerous countries across the globe.


Lailey LatheThe lathe is on open display at MERL, along with many of the hand tools and bowls found in Lailey’s workshop, where it forms an important part of the story of rural life in England. The artefacts in this display include an incomplete bowl sitting on the lathe, which Lailey is said to have been working on at the time of his death in 1958.




Related events

We will be highlighting the objects through linked activities in the course of the year so please watch the website for further details


Sutton's 1889 catalogueThe art and craft of Suttons
16 February to 9 April

Staircase hall

A chance to see a selevction of the colourful publicity produced by this iconic Reading firm, and to learn more about what happened behind the scenes.

Design for distance selling
3 March, 1-2pm
Conference room

A Lunchtime Network talk by members of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communications at the University of Reading.






Things to do now

  • Plan your visit to MERL
  • Find out what's on
  • CLearn more about the MERL collections

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