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I don't think I am being unfair to Reading if I say that, probably, most people's image of the town don't include culture and history. Having lived nearby for 3 years now, I've come to learn that actually dotted amongst the 20th Century architectural mistakes, and off the awful ring road there are a few hidden gems - this museum being a case in point.
A very short walk from the station and housed in the Town Hall, Reading Museum is a place that I go to quite regularly; I've taken visitors from out of town there too. It's a place that is worth a visit, apart from the fact that it is free, which is always a bonus, you will find you can happily fill an hour or so here and come away feeling that you have learned a thing or two.
The museum is easily accessible for all; there's a ramp at the entrance and a small lift goes to each of the three floors. Probably the most unexpected treat in store, if History is your thing, is a complete reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor, completed by a Ladies' Guild of Embroiders in 1835 apparently; having seen the original I can only admire the workmanship in the reproduction. Other exhibits have a clearer link to the town itself, on the ground floor Reading "People and Places" is an intriguing mix of the history of the town back to Roman times, South American costumes and Brownie costumes circa 1970 - on recent visit I spotted the Brownie handbook I had as a child on display, which did make me feel a tad old!
The museum does seem to aim to be a vibrant and changing place, at Half Term and weekends there are plenty of "make and take" activities for children, all free though a donation is encouraged. There is a non permanent exhibition room, at time of writing this houses a display about Paddington Bear. The Madjeski gallery hosts an every-changing display of artwork; it's an eclectic and interesting museum full of diverse items mainly with some connection to the town.
One of my favourite galleries is the Palmer Biscuit collection, though the company left the town in the 70's sometime, all the information about the glorious manufacturing past of the company in the town is really interesting, as is the vast collection of biscuit tins that are displayed here. As you look at tins shaped as trucks or houses, some of the dating from the 1900's it's hard not to think that things used to be just made better than they are today.
Elsewhere there's a glimpse of a Victorian school room, which is sometimes used to re-enact school of yore, there's also a fairly large collection of Roman relics, and a small collection of Natural History items. Though stuffed animals aren't really my thing I was irrationally amused on my last visit to learn that there is a beetle called a Cockchafer - sadly the otherwise excellent information everywhere didn't solve the mystery as to how this mini-beast got its name.
Before you leave the museum you should visit the Box Room, which as you might expect has a number of boxes in it which are loaned to schools but also has an every changing display of items to be touched. There's a microscope and, randomly, a huge hippo skull.
The museum is a great place for everyone, but children will enjoy completing some of the worksheets provided for a sticker reward, the staff are all exceptionally friendly and keen to share their knowledge about the exhibits in a non-preachy way. The museum does also have a second part to it, a staff member told me, there's a display of vehicles on the old Biscuit factory site apparently, which I have yet to visit.
Overall Reading Museum is a great place to pop into to escape the hustle and bustle of the main shopping areas which are literally yards from its door, if nothing else the cafe will beckon, and you will find there are good toilet facilities, my only criticism would be that there isn't a museum shop, but this is a free museum after all. Those out of town visitors I mentioned at the start have, they assure me, been surprised by how good the museum actually is - I don't think they were just being polite! If you live nearby and haven't been because you didn't know it existed or haven't spotted it behind Marks and Spencers, I recommend visiting. It's a good little museum, maybe not worth a special trip, but definitely worth spending some time in if you are in the area.
Details of opening times and more info here: http://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/
The Victoria's were responsible for many things we take for granted for today including sanitation, mass public transport and organised sport. To my mind one of the Victorians crowning achievements were the founding of municipal museums as a worthwhile, educational activity for the masses during their spare time. Up and own the country each provincial town s's museums were filled with taxidermy wildlife, recent finds from the ammeter archaeologists and collections deposited by slightly eccentric kleptomaniac gentlemen. I love town museum.
I've been to a few and know exactly what to expect , as their contents are so similar but in a way so diverse. I took great pleasure recently wandering round the Museum of Reading , as in the Berkshire town home to the festival and Oscar Wilde's incarceration rather than the activity you do with books!
Reading Museum is housed alongside ail the other civic leisure facilities such as its concert hall, library and tourist information office in the beautiful part Alfred Waterhouse (he who also designed and built the Natural History Museum and Manchester Town Hall) fine Victorian town hall that is not too far from the station at all.
Like most council run museums the Museum of Reading is free of charge making it a cheap way to spend a few hours whilst in Reading. It is open Tuesday to Sundays and also on Bank Holiday Mondays.
On entering the town hall you turn left for the museum and art gallery. The first gallery "Reading People and Place" with its short film and various objects provides an ideal introduction to the history of Reading, Further in th gallery were displays on the now mostly vanished Abbey and bits and pieces from Reading through the ages. Cue the fragments of Reading Abbey and Iron Age flints alongside the gas mks from the war.
Next door we encountered another mainstay of the local museums and art gallery in the shape of various items of art created by the guild of local artists.
Reading has the basis of a Victorian museum but is also very much a modern museum with plenty of interactive family fun to keep the children amused whilst educating them simultaneity . The final room on the ground floor is a box room with various items from the collection that can be handled. I can see this being an asset for any school's programs the museum has along with family days. We had a quick look in this room but hurried upstairs to see what else Reading Museum has to offer.
We all know about the Bayeux Tapestry, 1066 and Harold with the arrow in his eye don't we? Did you know that one Victorian curiosity Reading Museum houses is the only replica of one of the first cartoon strips in history. The replica was created by lots of bored Victorian housewives in Leek Staffordshire in 1885. Urban legend has it, that it has one difference to the original. Allegedly the prudish ladies embroidered underpants on one Saxon or Norman gentleman where there were none in he original. Ti did not spot this on the tapestry and it was not pointed out so I am not sure whether this is true or not. The tapestry was nicely interpreted with captions detailing the important people and events along the full length of the tapestry. There's also a little throne with crown and cloak so you can pretend to be one of the royals involved in the struggle for control of England in the 11th century. If we had been there slightly later in the day we could have benefited from a talk on the Bayeux tapestry, hence the museum service using different methods of interpretation within their galleries.
Oh and to answer my initial question at the start of the paragraph not everyone has heard of 1066 and all that as we overheard one girl to her boyfriend say that it was about an event but she was not sure which one. The youth of today don't they know anything?!
Like most museums Reading has a changing schedule of temporary exhibitions. The one on when we were there in March 2010 was Reading A to Z. This complemented Reading Place and People as it took each letter of the alphabet and connected it with things associated with Reading from a steel drum from the carnival to old maps and a poster from 1980's Reading Festival. Tickets were only £12.50. You would need to move the decimal point to the right and add same on for the cost of tickets nowadays. I'm tempted to revisit the museum in a few months, as they have an exhibition on Paddington Bear and Micheal Bond who grew up in Reading. If he grew up elsewhere in the Home Counties might our favourite Peruvian be Victoria, Waterloo or Eusotn Bear?
I smiled when I saw the next gallery as I could tick another box off my checklist of displays every good town museum should have. The gallery is fancily titled the Green Space but basically it examines Reading's flora and fauna with a number of taxidermy animals, birds an butterflies! I had a quick glimpse of this before moving onto another familiar subject: the Romans.
The Silchester Gallery recreates various aspects of Roman life in the settlement of Callava displaying Roman pottery and showing a recreation of a roman villa, I do like it when things are put in context so your not left looking at another cabinet of roman pottery with labels that are sometimes difficult to read. Turning the corner we jumped a couple of millennial to a recreation of a Victorian school room. It was blocked off presumably only used with groups of children. Just before the school room there were old school slats and pencils to give a flavorful of the Victorian school room experience. They are simple ways of brining the past alive. Interactive do not have to be technical and in my view the simpler the better.
Leaving the best to last we entered Biscuit town with the Huntley and Palmer gallery. Reading was famous for the three Bs, bulbs, bricks and biscuits with the Huntley and Plmer factory churning out biscuits until just before I was born in the late 1970s. Local industry is a favourite topic for displays in local museums. I've encountered shoe making in Kettering and knitting patterns in Dumfries but I really enjoyed the tribute to biscuit making. (But not any biscuits as they would be a bit stale!) .
There were displays about biscuit making and some simple activities to do with shapes and sorting for children but the stars of the show were the old biscuit tins. I enjoyed just gazing at he sheer variety of them. I especially liked the shaped ones from a coach to commemorate the coronation an, a globe, bookcase and a football cup.
On the way out of the museum we passed by the cafe and the shop. I did not look at the menu for the cafe at all so can not comment on the prices, range or quality of the food but I did have a wee wander round the shop. There were the usual suspects such as advertising magnets and pocket money toys but they did have some Huntley and paler biscuits (now made in Liverpool I gather) on display for sale alongside a potted history of biscuit tins!
I did enjoy my visit to Reading Museum. My companion on the day was a Reading man born and bred and he too enjoyed it , as had not been there for years. I would particularly recommend it to families, as there is enough to keep little hands and minds occupied. Reading Museum is very much like all town museums, a local place for local people. Reading is not really a place you would take a day trip to unless holidaying in a nearby pretty village or Windsor going to the festival or visiting for shopping and entertainment. . And thus the museum is not the sort of place you would go out of your way and make a special visit uncles there was a specific exhibition. However if in Reading already it is a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours or so.
The Town Hall
Berkshire, RG1 1QH
0118 939 9800