I was at a loose end. I was in Reading. There was a museum. It was fate really.
I started at the Box Room, a tiny treasure trove of variety. I enjoy interaction in museums. The time of ‘hands off’ and ‘no touching’ has stepped aside. Obviously I understand the need for these rules, but many objects are meant to be tactile and allowing people to touch can give a real connection to history in a way that looking can never fulfil.
Filled with things to do, see and touch, this room also houses and promotes the 1500 loan service boxes of real museum objects that can go out across Berkshire to inspire and educate as wide a variety of audiences as possible. What’s nice is you can see these boxes in storage as while not on loan they are kept here. The room also has a handling table with objects to look more closely. There is a taxidermy badger which the public are encouraged to touch; yes it’s showing a bit of wear, but it’s providing visitors with an opportunity that is not readily available and it’s clearly popular. My favourite part was a magnifying glass that enlarged images onto a screen alongside a variety of items to look at up close, from butterflies to shells, each with instructions as to what interesting things you might want to focus on
.I’ve never seen the Bayeux tapestry and I definitely wasn’t aware that Reading museum has a copy. It was created in 1885-1886 by the 35 members of the Leek Embroidery Society in Staffordshire (clearly a cool crowd of ladies). It’s an amazing replica, made more personal by the fact that along the bottom edge of the embroidery those who carried out the work have included “This is my bit” in the decorative border. It runs along the walls of two rooms, with simple interpretation that translates the Latin visible and describes the story. This minimal style of interpretation means that nothing is taken away from the striking scale and beautiful intricacy of the embroidery, in fact it acts as a clear translation of the story.
One thing really stood out for me in this museum and it was that everything linked back to Reading and its surroundings. I imagine the temptation for smaller museums is to try to be too much of everything, but the focus of informing about Reading’s place and connection to the world around it was clear, informative and would have made me proud of the heritage if I was local. Topics such as how the landscape of Reading has changed over time, from prehistory to now are covered when referring to fossils. The wildlife of the area and how this is changing is a focus of the natural history section. The archaeology of the area, including amazing mosaics from excavations at the Roman town of Silchester are displayed.
One of my favourite galleries was about Huntley and Palmers biscuits, locally produced and renowned as one of the first global brands. I’m ashamed to say that before this museum visit I had never heard of them, but the range of beautifully crafted biscuit tins, biscuit design illustrations and recipe books on display were incredible.
The museum runs an ‘adopt an object scheme’. I know a number of museums do this and it’s an excellent way for people to support their museum and create a connection with a museum object too. It was nice to see little plaques around the museum where people had adopted objects, or had been gifted an adopted object – it definitely makes for an unusual gift for the history lover who has everything!
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I left with a smile, I knew more about Reading and I had seen some amazing items of display.