The University of Reading began its collecting over a century ago, in the 1890s, when it was simply a small technical college in the town centre, based on the original School of Art and School of Science. Collections were needed to support the work of the College and, later the University: it needed books for its library, inspiration for its artists, and samples for its zoologists, botanists, and geologists. Many of these collections were built up by key academics from the University’s history, and are still in use today.

The University library, from the archive.

Over time, the University complemented its ever-growing collections and authoritative research by establishing subject-specific museums and collections:

  • The University’s Herbarium was founded in 1900, while the arrival of Professor Cole in 1906 gave an impetus to the zoology collections, which later became the Cole Museum.
  • During the 1920s, shortly before the University received its Charter, the University acquired a bequest of the Overstone Collection, a fine example of a 19th century private library, and increasing numbers of rare books were added to the University’s library. The Ure Museum was officially started in 1922, though parts of the collections pre-dated that (the Ure Routes blog explores these histories in more detail).
  • In 1951, John Higgs of the University’s Agriculture Department, responding to the vast changes to English farming, established The Museum of English Rural Life to preserve and record these changes. Today, The MERL is the country’s leading centre for exploring food, farming and the countryside, past and present.
  • In the late 1960s / early 1970s, the University began collecting very significant archives, including records of individual farms (The MERL), as well as the authors’ and publishers’ papers which grew to become The Archive of British Publishing and Printing.
  • 1971 was another milestone, seeing the establishment of the Beckett Collection following a seminal exhibition in the Library, and the acquisition of the Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, a significant early moment in the development of the Lettering, Printing and Graphic Design Collections.
The University library, from the archive.

In 2006, The MERL and the University’s Special Collections came together on one site in a Grade II listed building, with purpose-built galleries. The University’s Art Collections joined them in 2016. The MERL, The Archive of British Publishing and Printing, and The Beckett Collection have all been Designated as outstanding collections by Arts Council England. All of our museums and our archive service are Accredited.

Throughout the University’s history, its collections and museums have served vast numbers of researchers, students, and members of the general public, at all levels and ages. We are delighted to welcome more than 50,000 visitors annually, and tens of thousands more across our websites and social media channels.