51 Voices: Writing Voices

The latest round-up of Voices added to our 70th anniversary project

This January, The MERL embarked on  51 Voices, a new year-long project celebrating the Museum’s seventieth anniversary in 2021. Throughout the year, we will be working with a range of writers, artists and different communities to give contemporary voice to fifty-one objects and archives in The MERL collection connected in myriad ways to our founding year. In this monthly roundup of our 51 Voices work, join us as we reflect on how over four hundred people have been using poetry to give Voice to some of the fifty-one objects.

Supported by the University of Reading’s Arts Committee, we hosted ’51 Voices – Spoken Word’ on National Poetry Day 2021, using objects from 1951 (the year of the founding of The MERL) to inspire the creation of poetry. This was the first event we had delivered in the building for the public since February 2020 and for all of us it marked a very happy return to welcoming people back into our galleries and spaces. We were also very glad to be able to offer in person and creative event opportunities to our volunteers, too.

We collaborated with poets Desree and Dorothy Yamamoto who designed and delivered creative activities based on 51 Voices Object 31, Biscuit Tin, as well as the (soon to be published) 51 Voices Object ‘Giant Teapot’.

Biscuit tin, Huntley & Palmers, 1951–1952 (REDMG 1992.2.384)
Biscuit tin, Huntley & Palmers, 1951–1952 (REDMG 1992.2.384)

Attendees created their own pieces and gave voice to them in a spoken word open mic held in the museum. The event had a visibly moving impact on the participants, whose responses to the objects in our collection were both heartfelt and profound. They were clearly as appreciative of being at an in-person event as we were, and many who had never done so before were inspired to write poetry and perform throughout the night.

Read the poems by the event participants.

We also marked National Poetry Day with sessions for University of Reading English Literature and Museum Studies students, led by local poet Lesley Saunders and focusing on the 1951 Festival of Britain Michael O’Connell ‘Cheshire’ wall hanging recently displayed at The MERL as part of our anniversary year.

The University students also designed and delivered poetry workshops for The Langley Academy. This is one of the schools in a non-participation area that The MERL has been working with as part of Widening Participation. After the sessions, the school shared with us that the workshops had:

  • enabled students to approach poetry in a new way
  • improved students’ understanding of the process of writing poetry, developing vocabulary, and learning new poetic terms
  • allowed students to gain understanding and experience of how museums objects can be used to inspire creative expression in the form of poetry
  • increased students’ confidence in their poetic skills
  • been a lovely way to work and collaborate

Read the poems by Langley Academy students:

We are now planning follow-up poetry sessions for some of The Langley Academy pupils in early December, and are really excited to see and listen to their amazing creativity once again. Simultaneously, students in the University of Reading’s English Literature department are working on a poetry pamphlet, which will enable them to create and publish their own work in response to our collections, as well as pass these skills onto Langley Academy pupils.

It’s been brilliant to work with colleagues and students from across the University as well as with the range of brilliant poets and the secondary school pupils, and has enabled us to extend 51 Voices’ reach and the range of perspectives and experiences expressed.

We were delighted that several of the University students chose to participate in the public elements, too, as our student and Reading audiences connected over their shared love of museums and the written (and spoken) word.

Read more poems written in response to objects that feature in the 51 Voices online exhibition:

With many thanks to all the poets – first time and experienced – who came together to produce some extraordinary creative responses to our collection. And thanks to the University of Reading Arts Committee, Arts Council England and the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund – and our volunteers and colleagues across University of Reading and the Museums and Special Collections Services – for making all this possible.

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