Reading Connections Project: Village Collections

The common thread of the English village museum serves to connect the three otherwise distinct characters whose collecting habits provides the basis for this strand of Reading Connections project activity. This was originally conceived as a means of developing a detailed understanding of the histories of the principal founding collections of MERL, which comprise artefacts amassed by two people during the interwar period. Such collections harbour potential to elucidate the ideas of community that lie at the heart of this project, as well as to explore how such materials might serve to link the Museum with people now living in places where its holdings were gathered. Preparation for MERL's involvement in work on the Historic World Objects World Cultures at Reading Museum (another stand of Reading Connections) led to a realization that the founding collections of both project partners have their roots in small village communities. Indeed, Reading Museum's earliest holdings were provided by a prominent Berkshire landowner of the late-nineteenth century. This strand of the project has been modified accordingly and now seeks to begin to examine all three of these fascinating collections and the village communities from whence they emerged.


The Horatio Bland collection at Reading MuseumDetail of the will of Horatio Bland

Like many municipal institutions, Reading Museum was established in the late nineteenth century. The founding collection-which included a good number of ethnographic objects as well as natural history items-was provided for by the estate of Canadian-born landowner and private collector Horatio Bland (1802-1876). His trustees gifted the contents of his personal museum to the Borough of Reading. The collection itself had been gathered during Bland's lifetime and was originally displayed in a specially constructed building in the nearby village of Burghfield where he owned a small estate. Although Bland amassed objects from all over the world, these nevertheless found their first shared home in the comparatively rural context of this small English village. As the project progresses we hope to be able to shed light on the 'prehistory' of the Bland collection and to share this with the present-day Burghfield community.


The Lavinia Smith collection at MERLLavinia Smith Collection in situ

Lavinia Smith (1870-1944) was born and raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, and went on to study at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. She began her career teaching in schools in Vermont and her native Ohio. She first visited the UK in around 1905 and had a degree in Theology conferred on her the following year by the Archbishop of Canterbury. She came to settle in England where she again worked as a teacher before becoming Private Secretary to the Bishop of Gloucester. She maintained strong links with the Anglican Church throughout her life. By the 1930s she had settled in the village of East Hendred, where she gathered rural 'bygones' from local people and others, setting up a museum in her house, Downside. After her death the collection passed to the local Education Authority and eventually to MERL, where it was housed under her name as the Lavinia Smith Collection. During the project we plan to build better links with East Hendred, including with the volunteer-run East Hendred Museum located in Champs Chapel at the heart of the community. By combining collection-based investigations at MERL with archival research elsewhere and with the reminiscences of East Hendred people we hope to understand more clearly both why and how Lavinia Smith came to establish her museum.


The H. J. Massingham collection at MERLMassingham's Hermitage

Another significant founding collection at MERL is that amassed during the late-1930s and early 1940s by Harold John Massingham (1888-1952). An eccentric writer on matters connected with the countryside, Massingham was especially active during the interwar period and was well-connected in literary, journalistic, and ruralist circles of the early-twentieth century. His output was as prolific as it was diverse and included an extensive list of publications. Massingham lived for much of his life at Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. In 1937 he tripped when out walking in the countryside, sustaining a bad injury to the leg, which subsequently led to it being amputated. Seemingly undeterred by this disability, Massingham then proceeded to gather a large collection of artefacts connected with the rural past, which he housed in a purpose-built shed in his orchard that he referred to as the 'Hermitage.' Many of the objects in his collection were acquired fro him by a resident of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Many of the surviving items, later donated to MERL by Massingham himself, still retain documentary links back to this particular village community. It is likely that his collecting was inspired, at least in part, by the pioneering activities of Eleanor Adlard, founder of what later became the Winchcombe Folk and Police Museum. MERL has already been lucky enough to borrow archival materials from this volunteer-run institution and scans of these have been made. During this project we hope to discuss ways of taking this research activity forward in parallel with community partners and stakeholders in the collection.

Read the Reading Collections blog to follow our progress as we delve into these histories.

Return to the main project page for information about other strands of activity.

The project is generously funded by the Arts Council England's Renaissance Strategic Support Fund.

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