Display in Focus: Identity & Self-expression


I’m Aainaa, one of members of the Museum Geeks team. I’m here to give some background information and behind-the-scenes look of the ‘Identity & Self-expression’ display.

Firstly, the display is one of two that are located at the Museum of English Rural Life, just by the London Road campus of Uni.

17274411_10212239452571534_927751548_nBehind the scenes action shot!

This display focuses on the personal aspects of queer theory in terms of personal and social identity, particularly surrounding sexuality and gender roles. The aim of the display, as part of the exhibition, is to make people more aware of the issues surrounding normative sexuality and the complexity of identity, while challenging gender norms.

Through this display, I hope to provoke thought in visitors and allow people to have an open discussion and debate around the topics presented in the display and throughout the exhibition as a whole.

17274223_10212239453611560_586164488_nAfter almost everything was laid out

Because of the large wall space of the display case, I had decided early on to incorporate the art collection and other objects that would be effective in grabbing people’s attentions. Because of this, I had to carefully consider the design plan for this display.

case designMy rough design plan sketched out

Along with the art collection, I had also identified items from the MERL Archive and Special collections, Typography’s Ephemera collection, and the Ladybird collection. These were used to showcase the concept of gender norms and heteronormativity.

20170224_154518A piece from the Ephemera collection that didn’t make the cut

In addition to these, I was also able to incorporate contemporary collections through collaborating with Ellie Wilsden, a third year UoR Art student, as well as using some objects that belong to the Museum Geeks team in the display, to further illustrate the idea of ‘self-expression’ and ‘identity’. These items included a number of things, from baby clothes, to sunglasses, and from lipstick tubes to hair dye.

17274481_10212239453131548_1735749384_nPutting on some finishing touches on the objects from the Museum Geeks team

There is also an interactive element to accompany this display, whereby visitors are invited to ‘label’ and ‘express’ themselves by using blank labels and pens that have been provided just by the display case. Along with these are some badges designed by Ellie Wilsden, that have been made available for grabs for a 50p donation.

C6zrfDXXUAIxQ2FThese badges are designed by art student Ellie Wilsden (visit her blog at https://elliewilsdenart.wordpress.com/)

If you’re interested in this subject matter, want to look at interesting objects, or just want some badges and labels for your collection, I encourage you to visit this display at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Take a photo of your label, your badges, or yourself, and tag it with #AboutandOut for us to see!

For any questions, comments, suggestions or feedback, please feel free to contact us via email at museumgeeks@gmail.com!

Big thanks,

Aainaa (Museum Geek)


Display In Focus: Love & Desire


Writing this post is Jonathan, one of the students on the project. I’m the one in the grey jumper at the back of this image here.


Part of the purpose of this blog is to provide some insight as to how we in the group constructed the overall exhibition, and to that end, here’s a rundown of how my own display was put together.

Part 1: What Was I Even Going To Talk About?

So, we laid out pretty early in that we wanted the general abstract of the exhibition to have a LGBTQ+ theme and confront various issues on identity, particularly owing to the historical connection with the University such a topic presented. However, for the sake of management, and providing each student an opportunity to showcase their own skills, it was decided we would delegate amongst ourselves an individual theme and display that each of us could develop of our own accord. A trickier process than it might seem at first glance, as it required asking just what sort of topics we wanted to approach, how we wished to approached them, and most particularly whether or not there was enough material to support have. That latter point is what I first ran up against.

See, the initial idea I sought to develop was representation of LGBTQ+ figures in fiction. Then it was noted that we had to use material from the collections of the Museum of English Rural Life and/or the University archives, and it dawned on me that I may not be able to find so much. The uncertainty lasted for weeks, until one day we were given a tour through the archives on the MERL site, and inspiration appeared before us.

mills and boon book

So alright, ‘Representation’ in the sense of specific characters and stories wasn’t going to pan out. But a dissection of the imagery of culture, and how  it relates to given identities and desires? That could be done with what we had.

Part 2: Location, Location, Location

With a rough idea of the direction of my display in mind, next came the task of deciding where I was going to have it, what was going to go in it, and how it would all be arranged. The first part was decided to be the Staircase Hall in the MERL, featuring four cases – one tall standing case, and three table height display cases. Prior to my own display, the Staircase Hall had been host to Wintertide, a display that explored the concept of winter throughout the world.


Before any work could be done to put my display in place, Wintertide and all its material had to be put away. This was done in February at the first opportunity; unfortunately as I hadn’t trimmed down the list of objects I wanted quickly enough for submission – lesson learned, one will invariably want more than can actually be used – objects for the Love & Desire display couldn’t actually be put in. However, planning could be done now that the cases were empty, to get a better idea of how it would all fit.

Part 3: Installation, Installation, Installation


This was a first effort to figure out how the case containing Mills & Boon related material – the material that perhaps most touches on ‘Love & Desire’ in the whole display – might actually be able to hold it all. With the leaflets only a little bigger than the books I sought to use, it quickly made apparent I was going to run out of space for the ten books I was hoping to use,  alongside material on Violet Winspear, if I laid them flat.


Human beings live in three dimensions however, and I began to consider how I might ply this to make the most of the space. This is what the planning looked like with the leaflets…


While this is how it appeared in my crudely drawn draft. Usage of vertical space would reduce the necessary horizontal space, while still showing off the covers – the primary reason for the books being in the case,  as they showcased romantic and sexual fantasies – at a reasonable enough angle. It was a cunning plan…


Almost foiled by the simple fact there weren’t enough stands. The result was to attempt a mix where some would stand, others would lie flat, and hope the mixed arrangement looked interesting enough to make up for the inconsistency. While I didn’t have labels put together at this time, I used holders to get a rough sense of where they would occupy the space, also providing an opportunity to better understand what the labels would actually need to summarise around them.


Meanwhile, attempting to install in the standing case presented two previously unconsidered issues. Firstly, just how well the sunlight would shine directly down on the case, refracted by the suspended levels, obscuring some of the images. Secondly was that the ‘green’ edge of one of the suspended levels could in fact cut across any images that were too ‘high’ beneath them. Unfortunately there was no real way of solving either issue; only mitigate them by careful positioning and deciding what I wanted prioritise clarity for, based on a presumption of where a viewer might stand.


Then there was this. A letter from the Conservative government of 1987, to inform the public in the midst of panic regarding HIV/AIDS. A sobering piece, in the midst in what was looking likely to be more lighthearted and/or curious poking at the peculiar nature of old expectations and social standards. There were questions about whether or not it really belonged; if perhaps its placement in contrast would induce a kind of whiplash in the experience of a viewer that would dissuade them from continued engagement. The suggestion was made to move it to another of the displays where it might be better placed, but in the end I felt that perhaps such harsh contrast was necessary, and indeed could be highlighted through the object’s isolation at the very top of the case.


A less emotive, and much more spatial issue emerged in dealing with the Victorian children’s literature. Had to enough space for label holders, but also couldn’t have century old books brushing up against each other. The solution was to again use a bit of vertical space, in this case (metaphorically and literally) resting the books on towers of foam blocks, providing clearance.

For the fourth and final case… that was actually left to Jordan and Ffion, as perhaps four cases was one too many for myself. So with that out of the way, all the major material for my display was in place…

To Be Continued.

Display in Focus: History & Equality


I’m Polly, part of the Museum Geeks team. I’ll tell you a bit about how I created the History & Equality display.

mc3dd display
Behind the scenes! – I’m installing the main label into the History & Equality case.

A key part of LGBTQ+ history in Britain is the Wolfenden Report and its effect on the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I thought this was important to include in our exhibition, as it was such a significant part of the progression of gay rights in England and Wales in the 20th century.

Coincidentally, Lord Wolfenden who worked to produce the report was also Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading 1950–1964, so this topic highlights a thought-provoking aspect of the University’s history.

lord wolfenden portrait
‘Lord Wolfenden Official University Portrait’ by Brenda Bury, 1963.

I used UMASCS to research the Wolfenden Report, and spent a lot of time in the Reading Room at MERL. During my research I came across a range of interesting materials, including handwritten letters, newspaper articles, and even a copy of the report itself. Most of the material I discovered is now currently on show in the Out: LGBTQ+ Equality’ section of the History & Equality display.

Throughout the curation process we all had to make difficult decisions about what to include and what to discard. The label below didn’t make the final cut to be included in the Out: LGBTQ+ Equality’ display:

Sexuality and the law

In England, male homosexuality had been outlawed since the Buggery Act of 1533. This was reinforced in 1885 when the Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual activity between men illegal, including actions conducted in private.

Men across the country were victimised, leading to a number of high profile prosecutions, such as that of writer Oscar Wilde, and cryptographer Alan Turing.

By the end of 1954 there were 1,069 men in prison for homosexual acts in England and Wales. Upon entering imprisonment, each man was interviewed and offered ‘treatment’. Over 80% of these men rejected medical intervention, with many prison doctors skeptical that their treatments were an effective solution

It was discarded as it doesn’t directly relate to any objects in the display case. However, it does cover important facts to consider when thinking about the society that the Wolfenden Report was born from.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I would of course encourage you to visit the display (situated in the Archaeology foyer at Whiteknights Campus). Additionally, if you enjoy reading, I would recommend ‘Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain’ by Patrick Higgins. It gives a thorough background on the issues covered in the Wolfenden Report Display, including contextual information from the 1950’s and 60’s.

heterosexual dictatorship pic
Higgins, P. 1996. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Post-war Britain. London: Fourth Estate.


When visiting the History and Equality display make sure to keep an eye out for the ‘About: Equality for all’ display case. This other display features MERL collections and community curated objects, and discusses equality with a focus on gender, and issues in the workplace. It aims to complement the ‘Out: LGBTQ+ Equality display by showcasing significant activities which have pioneered and championed equal opportunities for all – and includes current positive activities at the University of Reading.

behind the scenes
Behind the scenes! – preparing labels for the display, with the ‘About: Equality for all’ display behind us.

As a project group we are keen to encourage discussion and share ideas, so feel free to contact us to contact us at museumgeeks@gmail.com for more info – and stay updated on the blog!

See you soon,

Polly  (Museum Geek)

Welcome to our exhibition!

Our exhibition team comprises of 5 students completing a Museum Studies course at the University of Reading. This exhibition is part of our final year project, and is completely designed, developed and curated by ourselves. Our aim is to use objects to discuss themes and concepts, and create displays to encourage discussion.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Because of this, we decided it was important to use our exhibition as a platform to explore ideas about LGBTQ+ and gender. We started to find stories hidden within the University of Reading’s varied collections, and looked at materials from MERL, Special Collections archives, University Art Collections, Typography Collections, The Ure Museum, and the Herbarium.

We made the most of working with the brilliant staff at University Museums and Special Collections Services (UMASCS), and found that the Special Collections archives were full of surprises…

mills and boon book
This ‘festive’ book is from the extensive Mills and Boon collection that UMASCS holds. A few Mills and Boon books have been used in our exhibition to explore ideas about sexuality in literature, in our ‘Love and Desire’ display.

After discussing various strategies, we decided to split our exhibition up into 5 different displays. Each display covers a different theme, to allow us to explore as many ideas and stories as possible. The titles we chose were: ‘History & Equality’, ‘Culture & Society’, ‘Identity & Self Expression’, ‘Love & Desire’, and ‘Ancient Myth & Transformation’.MC3DDExhibition location map (1)

We then each picked a topic to curate individually. The next post will tell you a bit more about the ‘History and Equality’ display – and keep coming back to the blog to find out how other displays in the exhibition were created.

As a project group we are keen to encourage discussion and share ideas, so feel free to contact us to contact us at museumgeeks@gmail.com for more info – and stay updated on this blog!

See you soon,

Museum Studies Geeks