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Reading Rooms

By Ruth Slavid
The Landscape Institute’s archive has the best new home imaginable and some fascinating neighbours.

Guy Baxter. Photo © University of Reading (photo: Laura Bennetto)

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), housed in the centre of Reading and owned by the university, is little known but deserves a higher profile. Set up in 1951, it is a fascinating gathering of rural equipment, devoted to the history of the growing and making of food. Behind the Alfred Waterhouse building that houses the museum are newer buildings, containing the archives not only of the museum but also of the entire university.

It is this collection that turns the museum from a place of some interest to landscape professionals into a key destination. Because, among the diverse and impressive archives, there now dwells the archive and library of the Landscape Institute. Like many organisations, the institute has had to face up to the fact that, while it is highly professional in running its own affairs, it is not a professional archiving organisation. And outside the hands of professionals, archives will both fail to realise their true potential and will deteriorate.

The archives at MERL are not only preserved. They are loved, and they are made widely available to the public. As Guy Baxter, Reading University’s archivist, explained to the LI’s College of Fellows at the start of September, ‘We want to make the LI’s archive available to as many people as possible – that’s what we do.’ Much of the archive is not even catalogued, so it is not even known exactly what is there. ‘Our aim is to get it onto open shelves. It will complement what we have already,’ Baxter said.

The university wanted to take the archive because, Baxter explained, ‘We didn’t feel that we were doing landscape justice’. The range of the archives is vast, with the agriculturally related ranging from  the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) to tractor maker Massey Ferguson. There are books, magazines, papers, photographs and, one of Baxter’s especial enthusiasms, pamphlets which give a fascinating snapshot of a time but are all too often ephemeral.

The additional archives, relating to the interests of the university rather than simply to rural life, are even more impressively eclectic – everything from local biscuit maker Huntley & Palmer, to the internationally celebrated playwright Samuel Beckett. This should help reassure landscape professionals concerned that, while much landscape is rural, a great deal isn’t. Landscape is certainly not being shoehorned into a box that does not fit it.

The university has a strong agricultural background, but its interests are far wider. It currently teaches landscape management and, although it no longer teaches landscape architecture, Baxter believes that it ran the first course in the country, starting in 1934. In order to convince the university to take on the LI archive, Baxter had to canvas the opinions of academics. Enthusiastic responses came not only from agriculture but also from history of art and from the Centre for the Sustainable Built Environment. The landscape archive is not going into a ghetto, but into a wider and exciting world.

Rachel Binnington, the consultant archivist who helped the Landscape Institute choose the new home for the archive, said, ‘Sometimes you get both what you want and what you need’. She believes that there could not be a better home, and once the archive is fully open, LI members are bound to agree. 

The archive is now safe for the foreseeable future but, of course, both MERL and the Landscape Institute have greater aspirations, and that is why the institute is in the process of setting up a friends’ group to raise money both for interpretation and study, and for new acquisitions.
Baxter, however, warns that one of the problems for the Landscape Institute archive, as for all archives, will be the need to say no. ‘The big challenge for an archivist today is that we have to be highly selective,’
he said.

The other challenge of course is to deal with the digital age, with the sheer volume of material that is generated and how to select and preserve and access it. Baxter, however, sees this as exciting rather than threatening. In fact the prevailing impression he gives is of enthusiasm, both for the Landscape Institute collection and for all the archives that the university has. He loves making cross-references, for instance finding a document in the archive of W H Smith that references landscape design of its HQ by Brenda Colvin.
This is actually Baxter’s second time working at MERL, having started his career as an archivist at Reading after the postgraduate qualification that followed his degree in history. Then he spent 10 years at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, working first in the area of art and design, and then in the theatre collection. He returned to Reading as university archivist in 2008.

Despite his long acquaintance with the collections, Baxter says that they contain so much that it is difficult to remember all the highlights. His favourite object is a wooden fork (agricultural, not table) that, rather than being carved from an enormous piece of timber, was painstakingly grown in a hedgerow over a period of years. It is unflashy with a history that does not give itself up easily at first glance, but which repays further study. It would be hard to find a better analogy for archives in general or for that of the Landscape Institute in particular, at least if sufficient funds are raised.

What is really exciting about the archive’s move to MERL is that, despite the collective sigh of relief that a solution has been found to a difficult problem, this is actually the beginning of the story and not the end. With the College of Fellows seeing the archive as one of its principal areas of interest, there is much to look forward to
A Friends Group has been set up to support the LI Archive at MERL. The Group will have its inaugural AGM in the new year. If you would like to be kept up to date, contact: [email protected]

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